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Friday Five: Under-the-radar players

In each new NFL season, on just about every team in the league, there are players who step up and take on bigger roles. Some are expected to do so, while others maybe are a bit of a surprise.

Here are five Lions players somewhat under the radar from a national perspective who could step up and thrive in 2016:


Taylor finished the 2015 season strong, recording 4.5 sacks over his last six games. He finished second on the team behind Ziggy Ansah (14.5) with 7.0 sacks last year.

For the first time in his career Taylor enters the season as the starter opposite Ansah. He was somewhat of a raw prospect when the Lions took him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, but he's now come a long way in terms of how to use his hands, leverage and speed to his advantage over the last three years. At the end of last season we really saw a more complete package in Taylor.

Ansah is going to get a lot of attention on the other side, and if Haloti Ngata is healthy and playing up to his ability, Taylor could see a lot of one-on-one blocks.

Double-digit sacks should be the benchmark for Taylor this season.

Quotable: "Well, I would hope this is a year that he takes a step to be ready to be a full-time starter and to be a difference maker," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "He really played well the second half of the year, but we had a lot of guys that did that."


Quarterback Matthew Stafford was asked this offseason to choose a player he thought could have a breakout season. He named TJ Jones. That's pretty high praise from the quarterback.

Jones got a chance to play last year when Lance Moore suffered an ankle injury. He didn't waste the opportunity. He did enough in those first couple weeks of an increased role on offense that when Moore returned to the lineup, Jones replaced Corey Fuller as the fifth receiver on the active roster the last three weeks of the season.

He made some big catches for Stafford down the stretch, including a 29-yarder late in Detroit's Week 13 game vs. Green Bay.

He was targeted eight times the following week in St. Louis, and recorded his first NFL touchdown, a 29-yarder vs. San Francisco, in Week 16.

Jones enters training camp as one of the top four receivers on the roster along with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Jeremy Kerley. He'll also be in the mix for punt return duties.

The Lions are going to make him a factor in the offense, and he has the potential to be a nice weapon for them.

Quotable: "TJ really has got to take another step forward," head coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's a guy that does a lot of things well.

"He can return for you. He's got return ability. But then also, he's got a little scat back ability. He can catch screens for you. He can take off and go when he gets a seam. We really expect him to come forward and be a little bit more of a prominent threat."


Lawson became the full-time starter opposite Darius Slay starting Week 8 in London. Over the course of the next nine games he allowed a reception just 57 percent of the time he was thrown at.

His 9.1 yards per reception allowed was the third lowest in the NFL among cornerbacks. Opposing quarterbacks had an 85.0 passer rating when throwing at him, putting Lawson in the top 30 percent in the NFL in that category.

He is very physical for his size. He doesn't shy away from contact, which makes him very good in run support as well.

Slay is emerging as one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL, so Lawson can probably expect a lot of balls thrown his way, at least early on. That means he'll have plenty of opportunities to make plays.

Quotable: "Obviously, I think he's one of those guys that improved," Caldwell said. "Every single day that he's out he works extremely hard. He's got really good focus, and he's a competitor.

"He was placed in some pretty tough situations last year, and he was able to hang in there and answer the bell and I do think that the way in which he goes about it in terms of his work habits, his study habits that he's going to continue to get better."


Tomlinson didn't earn the full-time starting gig at left guard until Week 4 last year. He started out a bit rough around the edges – as expected from most rookies – but steadily improved as the year went on. He finished the year allowing 4.5 sacks in 14 starts. The 20 quarterback pressures, according to STATS, INC., was on the high side.

There's typically a big jump for players from year one to year two, and the Lions should be expecting the same from Tomlinson. He's worked extensively this offseason on lowering his body fat percentage and putting on muscle. He enters the season as the starter at left guard.

The Lions need to run the ball much more effectively in 2016 and that begins with the men upfront. Tomlinson has all the tools and the mental makeup to be a good guard in this league.

Quotable: "I could tell you he needs to improve in everything,'' Caldwell said at the end of last season. "Kind of like I've always said with younger players that they get a chance to see a lot of different styles for however many weeks they get an opportunity to play and they have to measure up to those — some he fared well, some he didn't fare so well.

"And I think those are lessons you learn along the way. He's got the physical characteristics needed, he's smart, he's tough mentally. He's got a ways to go, but he's the right kind of guy.''


The last time Whitehead played middle linebacker was in 2014 when filling in for the injured Stephen Tulloch starting in Week 4. Whitehead ended up with 86 tackles, five defended passes and 2 interceptions that season. He stepped in and seemed to be a natural at the position.

He enters this season as the starter at the MIKE.

If Haloti Nagata, Tyrunn Walker and the rest of a deep defensive tackle unit for the Lions plays as well as the team hopes they will, Whitehead should have plenty of opportunities to make plays at the line of scrimmage.

He and starting WILL linebacker DeAndre Levy typically stay on the field in the nickel sub package, so there will be even more opportunities for him to make plays.

I wouldn't be surprised if Whitehead hits the 100-tackle mark for the first time in his career, if he stays healthy.

Quotable: "Oh it's extremely beneficial just knowing that, 'OK, I'm gonna be the MIKE going into the season,' because now I can focus on solely playing that position," Whitehead said this offseason. "The last two years, 'Am I SAM? Am I MIKE? Am I WILL?' You know trying to figure out which position.

"I believe it gives me the opportunity to utilize my speed and coverage ability, you know, be in the middle of the defense. Over the last two years I've gotten comfortable with getting the calls from the sidelines and giving it to the defense and that comfort level has definitely gotten better."

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