The offseason training program is completed and the next step for the players after about a six-week break is the start of training camp at the end of next month. Training camp is when the competition heats up, and jobs are won and lost.
Players in this league make big leaps in production year over year for a number of different reasons – more experience, higher comfort level or better scheme fit just to name a few.
From this current group of Detroit Lions players, here’s a look at five I think have the potential for breakout years due to some of those factors:
1. Kerryon Johnson, RB, second season
Johnson is poised for a breakout year after rushing for 641 yards with a 5.4 average in 10 games last year as a rookie. He also caught 32 passes for another 213 yards, showing that part of his game to be a real weapon as well.
What would those numbers look like had he not injured his knee Week 11 and missed the rest of the season? Johnson produced two 100-yard rushing performances, including a career-high 158 yards in a Week 7 win in Miami. He had six games where he notched more than 85 total yards from scrimmage.
The Lions are still going to use a running-back-by-committee approach, but Johnson is expected to be the lead back and get the most opportunities when healthy. He’s not going to surprise any teams this year, and opponents will have a game plan to stop him, but he should get every opportunity to make plays in Darrell Bevell’s running back-friendly offense.
View the best photos of the running backs from offseason workouts.
2. Tracy Walker, S, second season
Walker steadily worked himself into a bigger and bigger role on defense last season. He played well in the process and showed a versatile skillset that really seems to fit into Matt Patricia’s scheme. He has speed and length, and is a willing tackler coming down in the box.
Walker is going to get an opportunity to start alongside Quandre Diggs, who was on this list last year and had a breakout season in his own right. Walker earned the 16th best grade among all safeties last year playing in just 27 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Lions are expecting Walker to play a much bigger role on defense in his second season, and that should open up a lot more opportunities for the former third-round pick to make plays.
3. Jesse James, TE, fifth season
The Lions targeted James on the first day of free agency with the belief that his ceiling was much higher than he showed in his first four seasons in Pittsburgh.
James caught 30 passes for 423 yards and a couple scores last season. He caught 43 balls in 2017. That was as the fourth and sometimes fifth option among the stacked Steelers skill position group.
Just like Bevell’s offense is running back-friendly, it’s also tight end-friendly. James and rookie first-round pick T.J. Hockenson are expected to play big roles. James has a huge catching radius at 6-foot-7. He and quarterback Matthew Stafford made a number of nice connections in the spring.
The most James has ever been targeted in a season is 63 times back in 2017. That works out to a little under four per game. He could be in line for a nice increase in that department here in Detroit. We could see him make a nice impact on the stat sheet.
View the best photos of the tight ends from offseason workouts.
4. Da’Shawn Hand, DL, second season
Hand was Pro Football Focus’ top graded rookie interior lineman last season. He recorded 20 quarterback hurries, but played in just 56.7 percent of the defensive snaps as part of the rotation of players upfront.
He notched 27 tackles, four tackles for loss and forced a couple fumbles. Hand has the skillset, work ethic and unrelenting motor that puts him in the window for having a breakout season in 2019 as he’s expected to see more action. He’s a versatile player that can move up and down the line. He came in and had an immediate impact as a rookie. It should be fun to watch his maturation in his second season.
Hand has really taken on a leadership role this spring and has been a mentor to the young defensive linemen. After every open OTA or minicamp practice this spring, Hand could be seen working with the young guys on fundamentals and techniques. Ricky Jean Francois did the same thing for him last year when he was a rookie, so it’s good to see Hand pay it forward to this crop of first-year players. It just shows how unselfish and team-oriented he is.
5. Frank Ragnow, C, second season
Ragnow, last year’s first-round pick, will be the first to admit he had an up and down rookie season playing guard. His athleticism and power were evident, but he also struggled at times matching up with some of the quicker and more explosive defensive tackles in the league in one-on-one situations.
He’s moved back to his more natural center spot this spring and is likely to play there in the fall. He was the best center in college football for his last two years at Arkansas. He said he likes being back at the position, making the calls and setting up the protections.
His power should hold up well when facing bigger nose tackles. He skillset also seems to be a good fit at center for some of the double team and tandem blocks he’ll be asked to deploy, along with being able to get to the second level to cut off linebackers. Ragnow is smart, and when left uncovered, he’ll be asked to pick up any player that comes free on stunts or blitzes. That’s something he’s used to doing having played more center than guard in his career.
A move to a more natural position upfront can sometimes be all a player needs to have a breakout season.