LIONS INSIDER

TWENTYMAN: 5 under-the-radar players to watch

Posted Jul 6, 2017

Tim Twentyman takes a look at five under-the-radar players who could make an impact in 2017.

It seems like every NFL season, on just about every team in the league, there are some players who step up and take on bigger roles.

Not a lot of people expected Lions defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr. to step in and lead the NFL in sacks the first month of the season last year and finish with a team-best eight sacks after spending 2015 on the practice squad.

There are also some players, for whatever reasons -- injury being one, who haven't quite reached their potential and remain under the radar.

Here are five Lions players somewhat under the radar from a national perspective who could step up and thrive in 2017:

AMEER ABDULLAH, RB, 3rd YEAR

The former second-round pick is entering his third season, but the Lions and the national NFL audience have yet to see what his true potential can be.

He split carries in Detroit’s backfield as a rookie. After getting over a bit of a fumbling problem early on, he went on to average 4.2 yards per carry.

That gave the Lions a ton of optimism for Abdullah’s second season in 2016, and he was off to a terrific start last year (averaging 5.6 yards per rush), before a foot injury Week 2 ended his season.

Abdullah still has plenty of questions to answer. Can he be a 200-plus carry back in this league? Will his 5-foot-9, 203-pound frame hold up for a full season as the team’s lead back?

Abdullah certainly has break-out potential for a team looking for a more consistent rushing attack in 2017.

Quotable: "I believe this: I believe Ameer Abdullah, when he's healthy and rolling, he's awfully good," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. "Don't listen to me. Look at the numbers and see when he's on the field for yourself what he does."

TRAVIS SWANSON, C, 4th YEAR

Swanson had a positive grade last season from Pro Football Focus and was graded among the top 12 centers in the league by the website at the time he suffered a season-ending concussion Week 13.

He allowed just two sacks and seven quarterback hurries in 12 games last year, by far his best season as a professional.

After Swanson was lost for the year, Detroit had to move Graham Glasgow from guard to center, and Laken Tomlinson back into the starting lineup. At that time, the Lions were on a four-game winning streak and playing very well on offense.

Swanson is entering a contract year, and will be looking to lock down the job for the foreseeable future with another good season.

Quotable: “I feel fine,” Swanson said of his health last month. “I don’t want to go into details or anything, I’m just happy (the concussion) is in the past and hopefully I don’t ever have to deal with anything like that again.”

ANTWIONE WILLIAMS, LB, 2nd YEAR

Rookie Jarrad Davis and veteran Tahir Whitehead have stolen a lot of the headlines at the linebacker position lately, but Williams has quietly had himself a nice offseason.

Williams, the team’s fifth-round pick last season, is the biggest and most physical player the Lions currently have at the position at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds.

The Lions will try and find their best combination of three linebackers when training camp starts next month, and don’t be surprised if Williams emerges as a strong candidate for the third spot.

Veteran safety Glover Quin said earlier in the offseason that Williams was one of the young players to watch on defense in 2017.

Quotable: “A ton, ton better,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Williams’ performance on the field this offseason. “Much more urgent in terms of how he’s attacking the game, really is seeing and understands the scheme better, so he’s reacting faster and he’s a big man that can run. So, he’s really done some good things throughout this offseason, really like where he’s going right now.”

MILES KILLEBREW, SS, 2nd YEAR

Killebrew showed flashes in limited playing time on defense last season. He took advantage of the time he saw in some sub packages on defense, and is expected to see his role increase in his second season.

Killebrew is big and fast. Austin describes him as a hybrid player he can use a lot of different ways. Expect him to do just that.

Rafael Bush is no longer in Detroit, which means Killebrew has moved into the third safety role behind Quin and Tavon Wilson. Austin utilized a three-safety dime package very effectively last season, and he could chose to do so with Killebrew this season. Killebrew made 28 tackles and had an interception in just 204 snaps last season. What could he do with three times as many snaps in 2017?

Quotable: “He has a lot of places he can play,” Austin said of Killebrew. “I see him as a strong safety for us who can play in the DIME, who can play in the back because when you watch him, he has really good athletic ability and he can run and he has really good ball skills.

“We’re trying to get him a little bit more comfortable in all aspects and just like Antwione (Williams), now that he’s in his second year of the scheme, he feels a little bit more comfortable with what he’s doing. So, he’s playing a little faster, reacting a little faster and I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do this preseason. I’m expecting him to really improve from what he did last year.”

DARREN FELLS, TE, 4th YEAR

Fells has an opportunity to carve out an important role in Detroit’s offense. This team has lacked a versatile tight end that is both a very good blocker and capable receiver since Brandon Pettigrew was in his prime.

Both Eric Ebron and Michael Roberts are better pass catchers than they are in-line blockers.

With the injury suffered to starting left tackle Taylor Decker, Fells’ role as a good blocker on the edge could be of even greater importance to the Lions until Decker can get back on the field.

Fells has never caught more than 21 passes in a season, but that number could significantly increase in an offense that spreads the ball around. If the Lions need Fells to play significant snaps in two tight-end sets, he could see his targets increase significantly in Detroit.

Quotable: “Well, we are excited about Darren. We’re excited about Darren as a blocker and as a receiver," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "He’s a really big target, he’s a really good blocking guy as well as a receiver. So, we’re excited about him. He’ll get plenty of use doing all sorts of stuff, but I’m sure he’ll help out there as well.”