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O'HARA: Decker sees offensive line's bond as a strength

Taylor Decker enjoys going to work every day with his friends.

That's all 15 members of the Detroit Lions' offensive line – himself and 14 others – who work daily in training camp with the shared interest of getting better at protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running backs.

If camaraderie means anything – and that's often the case in building a competent offensive line, the Lions' o-line should take a step forward this season.

It's been a work in progress since Bob Quinn drafted Decker in the first round in 2016 with his first pick as general manager of the Lions. Other draft picks and free-agent signings have followed in a concerted effort to build a strong unit.

However the starting five and key backups are put together through training camp and the preseason, the Lions should have a veteran unit from tackle to tackle when they start the regular season.

As he begins his fourth season as the starting left tackle, Decker sees the bond the unit has developed as an asset.

"They're people you'd actually love to be your friends if you weren't playing football," he said. "That sort of group. I can't imagine what it would be like if you didn't like anybody.

"That's what allows us to come out here and work so hard."

The feelings and enthusiasm Decker expressed as he spoke to the media after a training camp practice in pads were genuine. So was the occasional byplay from his pals on the offensive line passing by as Decker shared a blend of serious and lighthearted moments.

Veteran guard Kenny Wiggins gave Decker a verbal jab as he passed by, and Decker jabbed back when someone told him about Wiggins' comment that training camp doesn't begin until the pads come on.

"He would say that," Decker said. "He's 31 years old ... old man."

Decker jumped the gun – or the calendar—on that one. Wiggins doesn't turn 31 until Aug. 8.

Decker is a relative youngster. He turns 26 on Aug. 23. In his fourth season, he is his unit's elder statesman in terms of time spent with the Lions. Decker has achieved that status over teammates Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl by a narrow margin that is computed in days and hours.

All three were drafted in 2016. As a third-round pick, Glasgow was drafted one day after Decker. Dahl was taken two days after Decker in the fifth round. Other linemen such as starting right tackle Rick Wagner, Wiggins and Oday Aboushi have been in the league longer than Decker, but haven't been with the Lions as long.

Elder statesman approaching the ripe old age of 26?

"That's weird," Decker said. "Wow."

Decker's experiences as a Lion – good and bad – have given him a broad perspective on what it takes to handle situations and survive and succeed.

"That's huge," he said. "You get some of the younger guys in here, obviously they know how to play football. But there's a lot that goes into being an NFL football player. There's a level of competition that's fierce day in and day out.

"Having a level of familiarity with the organization, knowing where things are in the building – that can stress a guy out, not knowing where things are. It's nice to build on things year in and year out. There's a level of comfort, and there's not – if that makes any sense.

"The big thing is, that allows you to grind through the hard times."

Injuries are an unfortunate reality in pro football. They happen often, and it can be at any time.

Decker had the unfortunate experience of sustaining an injury during the 2016 offseason program that required surgery. He missed all of the 2017 training camp and returned to start the final eight games of the regular season and all 16 in 2018.

Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, a former NFL starting offensive lineman, said before the start of camp that players aren't at full strength until the second year after the injury, when their focus is on preparing for the season, not rehabbing an injury.

"Each time you have something like that, there are going to be a few hits before you get the confidence that your body is going to survive those things," Davidson said. "I think he's gained that confidence again, and we're looking for him to make the next step to become an even better football player."

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