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Who are the Lions' likely breakout candidates? Here are five to watch

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions fell staggeringly short of expectations last season, stumbling to a 3-12-1 record. Given the way it ended, it's  easy to forget how competitive the team was the first half of the year, when a few bad breaks was all that separated the Lions from winning six of their first eight games.

But the wheels predictably fell off the wagon when quarterback Matthew Stafford was done in by a back injury at the season's midpoint. The Lions lost their final eight games with the franchise quarterback sidelined, missing the playoffs for a third straight season in the process. 

Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson.

If Detroit is going to compete for a playoff spot this year, they'll need their quarterback healthy. That much is obvious. Beyond that, to take the next step and build on that promising half-season from a year ago, they'll be looking for a handful of breakout performances.

Here are five players, who if they deliver on their potential, could help the Lions make a run at returning to the postseason.  

Tight end T.J. Hockenson

Last year's first-round pick, Hockenson came out the gate hot with a memorable debut in the season-opener against Arizona, hauling in six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, he never approached that level of production again during his rookie campaign, topping out at 56 yards the next 11 games. 

After exploding onto the NFL scene, Hockenson uncharacteristically put some balls on the ground. He also suffered two tough injuries — an ugly concussion, which remarkably didn't end up costing him any time, and a season-ending ankle injury that sidelined him the final four games of the year. 

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Still, despite an overall disappointing first season, Hockenson flashed all the tools that led to the Lions taking him No. 8 overall in the draft. With free-agent addition Jesse James a far bigger disappointment in 2019, there's little reason to believe Hockenson won't enjoy plenty of opportunities in year two. Once again healthy, and with some invaluable experience under his belt, he's almost certain to see a production jump common at the tight end position. 

Jahlani Tavai

Linebacker Jahlani Tavai

Tavai also ended his rookie year on injured reserve, suffering a late-season shoulder injury. Prior to going down, the second-round pick out of Hawaii played a season-high 70 snaps in a Week 14 loss to Tampa Bay. In that game, he also recorded his first career interception, jumping into a passing lane similar to a play he'd pulled off in training camp against Stafford. 

With Jamie Collins added to the fold this offseason, and the Lions' top four off-ball linebackers returning, Tavai is actually at risk of seeing his role reduced, but the more likely outcome is the youngster starts eating into Jarrad Davis' playing time at middle linebacker.

Nick Williams.

Defensive tackle Nick Williams

In many ways, Williams' breakout came last season, as a member of the Chicago Bears. After clinging on to his NFL livelihood for several seasons, Williams finally found some success after his role expanded due to some injuries in front of him on the depth chart. His 6.0 sacks as an interior lineman obviously stand out. 

When we went back and watched Williams' film this offseason, it was easy to see why the Lions targeted him in free agency, inking him to a two-year, $10-million contract. With a stout frame, long limbs and hot-running motor, he's a good schematic fit. He might not start, but he should see plenty of playing time and has a good chance to build upon last season's success. 

Joe Dahl

Guard Joe Dahl

In his first year as a starter, Dahl was perfectly adequate. Plus, when you consider his contract, a modest two-year, $3.6-million extension that kicks in this year, he's actually one of the roster's better bargains. 

A fifth-round pick in 2016, the college offensive tackle has been one of the roster's few developmental successes in recent years. And with solid veteran options on both shoulders in offensive tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow, continuity and an improved Dahl could make the left side of Detroit's line a strength in 2020. 

Tracy Walker

Safety Tracy Walker

The Louisiana Lafayette product has steadily improved during his two seasons with the Lions, and with the addition of veteran Duron Harmon solidifying the secondary, the team is in position to deploy the rangy and versatile Walker however the week's matchup dictates. 

Walker expanded his contributions last season, namely serving as the team's go-to option for covering tight ends. He'll likely continue to see plenty of time in that role this year, but he also has the instincts and length to play center field or an underneath robber in coach Matt Patricia's various coverage schemes, as well as the strength to line up in the box and support the run. 

Along with Ragnow, Walker is one of Detroit's young players that has the talent and opportunity to be a Pro Bowl-caliber performer. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers