Five breakout candidates for the Lions

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

The early projections are in and oddsmakers and media outlets aren’t giving the Lions much of a chance to return to the playoffs this upcoming season.

After last year’s tightrope act saw Detroit pull off one heart-pounding comeback after another in eight of its nine victories, it’s unlikely that many games will continue to fall in its favor.

Ameer Abudullah must prove to be a durable option to help improve the Lions running game.

In fact, most publications predict the Lions will continue the same trend they have over the past four years — follow a postseason appearance with a mediocre 7-9 record.

General manager Bob Quinn and Co. addressed some needs in the offseason — drafting linebacker Jarrad Davis to help improve arguably one of the league’s worst units, and signing guard T.J. Lang and tackle Rick Wagner to shore up the offensive line — but didn’t significantly improve the roster.

That means the Lions will be hoping for a few pleasant surprises from the returning cast, particularly in the backfield and on the defensive line, where the finished 30th in rushing (81.9 yards per game) and tied for 31st in sacks (26).

Are Lions worst in NFL? CBS Sports says it’s possible

So who will emerge from under the radar and take on a larger role much like defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr., the team’s sack leader, did last year?

Here are five players who need to have a breakout season in 2017 in order to improve the Lions’ odds of making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1994-95:

■ 1. Ameer Abdullah, RB: The Lions opted against drafting a running back and signed Matt Asiata, who has spent most of his career as a backup, in free agency, which is a sign of confidence they have in Abdullah reviving and leading the unit. The former second-round pick has shown flashes of promise but has still yet to display his full potential as he enters his third season.

As a rookie, Abdullah split carries and battled fumble issues the first third of the season, but still managed to average 4.2 yards per carry. He springboarded that into an impressive start last year, where he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 11.4 yards per reception before a foot injury in Week 2 cut his season short.

While Abdullah (5-foot-9, 203 pounds) has yet to prove he can handle the rigors of a full season as the feature back, his shiftiness and playmaking ability can help kickstart a run game that has been sputtering for years into a higher gear.

If he’s able to stay healthy and handle the lion’s share of the carries, he can help ease the burden on Matthew Stafford’s throwing shoulder and potentially become the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013.

Safety Miles Killebrew (35) may have earned a larger role with the Lions this season.

■ 2. Miles Killebrew, SS: Killebrew, last year’s fourth-round pick, made the most of his limited playing time on defense and noticeably grew more comfortable with the Lions’ scheme as the season progressed.

He was deployed in a variety of roles and packages due to his size and speed, and recorded 28 tackles, a pass defensed and an interception in 16 games while averaging less than 10 defensive snaps per game as a rookie. During the second half of the year, Killebrew (6-2, 222) notably carved out a niche role as a third-down stopper and proved capable in pass coverage.

With Rafael Bush leaving in free agency, the hard-hitting Killebrew stands as the No. 3 safety on the depth chart and could make a greater impact in three-safety packages with Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson. The second-year pro could also potentially chew into Wilson’s playing time at strong safety.

■ 3. A’Shawn Robinson, DT: After playing sparingly early in his rookie campaign, Robinson, the team’s second-round pick last year, was a major part of the defense after he took over the starting job the final third of the season.

Robinson (6-4, 317) posted 30 tackles, seven passes defensed and two sacks over 16 games, all numbers that should rise in his second season.

With Tyrunn Walker gone and Khyri Thornton suspended the first six regular-season games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Robinson appears poised for an expanded role.

While the Lions didn’t make any significant moves to address their poor pass rush, Robinson could become a disruptive force if he improves his pass-rushing abilities to match his run-stopping prowess.

■ 4. Antwione Williams, LB: The linebacking unit was a mess last season and was constantly picked apart by opposing quarterbacks, leading to an overhaul at the position. The Lions cut ties with oft-injured DeAndre Levy, and drafted Jarrad Davis in the first round and Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth.

With Davis slotted to patrol the middle linebacker spot and Tahir Whitehead, last year’s leading tackler, sliding over to the weak side, Williams (6-3, 240) is the biggest and most physical candidate on the roster to lock down the strong-side job.

As a rookie last year, Williams, a fifth-round pick, learned all three linebacker positions. He tallied 27 tackles, including two for loss, and a fumble recovery in 14 games, with three starts.

Even if he doesn’t earn the third starting spot, Williams figures to receive more opportunities and an increase in the 204 defensive snaps he played in 2016.

5. Taylor Decker’s fill-in, LT: The Lions were dealt a crippling blow when it was revealed Decker will be sidelined indefinitely after undergoing surgery to repair a shoulder injury in early June.

As a rookie, Decker was more than adequate protecting Stafford’s blindside and didn’t miss an offensive snap last year.

Although Decker is not expected to miss the entire 2017 season, finding a capable replacement at such a crucial position will be a top priority throughout training camp and the preseason.

The Lions will have several options to sift through with Joe Dahl, Corey Robinson, Greg Robinson, Cornelius Lucas and Cyrus Kouandjio. While none have an impressive track record and aren’t exactly ideal, the hope is at least one will be viable and serve as a sufficient stopgap until Decker is able to return.