Expectations before 2016
It was clear the Lions needed to retool their offensive line heading into the 2016 offseason. Only nine teams gave up more sacks than the 44 sacks surrendered by Detroit in 2015, and an adjusted sack rate of 6.9 percent placed them 22nd in the NFL among offensive line units according to Football Outsiders.
Drafted 16th overall by the Lions in the 2016 NFL Draft, Decker was Detroit’s first step towards putting together a formidable and dynamic offensive line. However, the pick was immediately the subject of much speculation and questioning:
- “Could he play left tackle in the NFL?”
- “If not, how much of an adjustment would it be moving to the right side of the line?”
- “Couldn’t the Lions have gotten more value for a pick as high as No. 16?”
- “Hey, Bob Quinn’s from the Patriots, why didn’t he trade down?”
Prior to the draft, it was assumed the team who drafted Decker would move him to the right side for a couple of reasons. For one, people were weary of his ability to handle top-end edge rushers; his tendency to get too vertical out of his stance and short arms weren’t a recipe for an ideal LT. Decker’s instincts, solid footwork and physicality as a run blocker seemed to make him a shoe-in for a transition to the right side of an NFL offensive line.
All of that was thrown to the wayside, however, when Decker was spotted lining up at left tackle during OTAs, spelling the long-time holder of that position in Riley Reiff. With this bit of news, expectations for Decker seemed to rise: playing left tackle, the protector of the quarterback’s blind side, assumes a level of responsibility like no other position on offense. Charging Decker with this assignment showed the coaching staff’s trust in the Ohio State product and made it clear the Lions were going to build themselves from the inside out.
All eyes were on Decker when the Lions met the Steelers in Pittsburgh for their first exhibition of the 2016 season. After a false start penalty on the snap before the video below, veteran James Harrison welcomed the rookie to the NFL:
Suddenly, all of that talk about Decker’s over reliance on upper-body strength and arm length not typical of many NFL left tackles seemed to unnerve Lions fans in a single drive at the beginning of August.
Decker’s preseason had its ups and downs, but one thing was sure coming into the football that mattered: Many people’s expectations of Decker were reeled in and tempered by his inconsistent showing during the preseason.
Actual role in 2016
2016 stats: 16 games (16 starts) — all at left tackle
In 2016, Detroit’s pass protection went from below average to establishing the average mark: The Lions gave up less sacks this past season (37) and finished with a better adjusted sack rate (18th at 6.1 percent). Much of that had to do with the contributions from Decker.
The Lions offensive line was demonstrably better in 2016 considering it wasn’t the most stable unit. Four of the five starters along the offensive line missed time including Riley Reiff, Larry Warford, Travis Swanson and Laken Tomlinson. The one who didn’t and was one of only 17 players in the NFL who played every snap on their side of the ball in 2016? Taylor Decker.
Decker’s PFF grade of 82.4 placed him 23rd among 78 qualifying tackles. Of first year players, Decker finished behind only Jack Conklin (88.9 grade), making him the second-highest graded tackle among rookies. As for the concerns about Decker in pass protection coming out of Ohio State, PFF gave him a grade of 81.9—good for 24th among tackles—and an 80.0 grade in run blocking—placing him 20th behind Cleveland’s Joe Thomas.
Outlook for 2017
As for Bob Quinn, it seems as though he nailed his first draft pick as general manager: Detroit has their left tackle of the future in Decker. His play became more and more consistent over the course of the season even though the guard lining up next to him on the left side was changing constantly. Growing pains are part of a player’s transition from college to the NFL, and Decker wasn’t save from his share of those, but the infrequency of them was a large part of what made his rookie season such a success.
And as far as looking ahead, Decker is already taking the “no days off” approach in preparation for the 2017 season:
Previously profiled Lions: Riley Reiff, Anquan Boldin, Dan Orlovsky, Devin Taylor, Rafael Bush, Don Muhlbach, Larry Warford, Andre Roberts, TJ Jones, Kerry Hyder, Jon Bostic, Marvin Jones, Alex Carter, Tim Wright, Armonty Bryant, Clay Harbor, Crezdon Butler, Matthew Mulligan, Asa Jackson, Tyrunn Walker, Josh Bynes, Stefan Charles, Cornelius Lucas, Steve Longa, Joique Bell