Third-year Lions face critical year in development

By Eric Coughlin
The Detroit News
Taylor Decker

The third year is very important in an NFL player’s development. It's often described as a make-or-break season – if significant contributions aren't made by a player in his third season, the team might start to look elsewhere to fill that player's expected role.

It also serves as referendum year on a draft class. General manager Bob Quinn's first draft with the Detroit Lions came in 2016 and those players are entering their third years.

Here are key Lions third-year players and what is expected of them in 2018.

Taylor Decker, LT (first round, No. 16)

Responsible for keeping franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford upright and healthy, Decker is one of the most important Lions on the offensive side of the ball. A good rookie season landed him on the NFL's all-rookie team, but an injury knocked him out of the first half of 2017. If healthy, the former first rounder will keep the Lions' passing game dangerous and provide a boost to the struggling run game. There's no doubt the talent is there – Decker landed at No. 12 on our list of the top 25 offensive players in the NFC North this season.

A’Shawn Robinson, DT (second round, No. 46)

After starting just five games in 2016, Robinson took off in year two, starting every game and racking up 53 tackles with an interception to make an impact at a position that doesn't always get the glory. This season, Robinson's versatility will be on display as new coach Matt Patricia will use him in three- or four-man fronts. He could take his game to a new level if he can add a pass rush to his run-stopping skills. But Robinson is already one of the Lions’ most important contributors – coming in at No. 22 on our list of the top 25 defensive players in the division.

Graham Glasgow

Graham Glasgow, C (third round, No. 95)

Thrust into the starting lineup a few games into his rookie season, Glasgow has been a solid, versatile interior lineman for the Lions. The former Michigan lineman can play at guard or center and run blocks better than he pass blocks, a rarity on the Lions’ offensive line. He'll be tasked with a lot of responsibility this year as the expected starter at center, making the line calls, dealing with defensive tackles and keeping an eye on Arkansas rookie Frank Ragnow at guard.

Kerry Hyder, DE (signed by Lions off Jets practice squad in January 2016)

Not much was expected when the Lions picked up Hyder off the Jets practice squad, but he finished the 2016 season with eight sacks and led the team in tackles for loss. An Achilles tear ended his 2017 season in the first preseason game. After not investing much in the past few drafts at the defensive end position, the Lions might lean on Hyder and Anthony Zettel to get consistent pressure on the quarterback opposite Ziggy Ansah, and considering Ansah seems unlikely to be with the team past this season, Hyder could be in the Lions' long-term plans at defensive end. But Achilles tendon ruptures don't have good recovery reputations, meaning that counting on Hyder in this season or the future is a risky proposition.

Miles Killebrew

Miles Killebrew, S (fourth round, No. 111)

A rotational third safety, Killebrew hasn't gotten much of a chance yet. The former fourth-rounder was expected to see more snaps when safety Tavon Wilson went down with a shoulder injury last year, but he remained in a reserve role. He may see more time this year, as he has the ability to play a hybrid role, something that may be utilized in Matt Patricia's new defensive scheme.

Joe Dahl, G (fifth round, No. 151)

Moved to guard after not being able to make it work at tackle, Dahl's time in Detroit may be running out. Injuries have limited his opportunities and Dahl has played in only 12 games over three seasons. If he can't break through in 2018, the Washington State product could be somewhere else in 2019.

Jake Rudock, QB (sixth round, No. 191)

If he's doing anything more than holding a clipboard or handling mop-up duties, Lions fans won't want to see Rudock, the primary backup to Matthew Stafford. The former sixth rounder is on a manageable contract and played well last preseason, completing 37-for-56 for 380 yards and three touchdowns. Rudock, a former Michigan quarterback, will only see significant playing time if Stafford gets injured, and if Rudock can't hack it, veteran backup quarterback Matt Cassel is waiting in the wings. If he gets an opportunity, he needs to perform well, but even if he does, Rudock might have to go elsewhere or wait for Stafford's career to end to get big playing time.

Anthony Zettel, DE (sixth round, No. 202)

Perhaps the Lions' best value pick of the 2016 draft, Zettel came into the league from Penn State as a sixth-round selection but hardly played that season, registering only 10 tackles and one sack. With the injury to Kerry Hyder in 2017, Zettel started all 16 games last year and had good production in the first half of the season, with four sacks in the first four games. His production slowed toward the end of the season, though, failing to record a sack in the last five games. This season, look for Zettel and Hyder (if healthy) to combine with Ziggy Ansah to form a competent trio at defensive end.

Dwayne Washington, RB (seventh round, No. 236)

Another Lions player headed into his third year who hasn't gotten much of a chance, Washington now finds himself in a very crowded backfield with the additions of Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. The former seventh-rounder has size and speed but will have to fight for a roster spot in training camp. Washington has averaged only 2.8 yards per attempt during his career.