| The Detroit News
Not many things are going right for the Detroit Lions these days, but there are some bright spots hidden by the shadow of the team’s 1-3 start to the 2020 season.
Among them has been the performance of left tackle Taylor Decker, who in his fifth season is playing some of the best football of his career. After some ups and downs the past three seasons, the 27-year-old lineman appears to be putting it all together as he enters the prime of his career.
Coming off a middle-of-the-road campaign in 2019, where he allowed seven sacks and committed a team-high 10 penalties, Decker has made major improvements in both areas this year. To start, he hasn’t allowed a sack through four games. And he’s drawn just one flag, a 5-yard false start infraction in the Week 3 win over Arizona.
So while much of the roster struggles to find some elusive consistency, they’re getting it at one of the most-important spots on the field.
“He’s done a great job over the last couple years of just constantly getting better, improving and building on top of that,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I would say that ‘consistency’ is a great word for him right now. I would say with his technique, some things with his fundamentals that he’s doing, and I would say that he came right into camp at an outstanding level with that.”
One of the things about Decker is he’s never shied away from putting the work in. Since entering the league, he’s set up shop in Arizona during the offseason, where he works out at OLP, a training facility dedicated to offensive linemen and run by retired Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley.
So while the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the offseason routine for so many professional athletes, Decker was able to stay on track with his plan.
“I was fortunate to be able to have that home base and have that training regiment, the trainers and the expertise to guide me along this offseason where it was unprecedented for all of us with no OTAs,” Decker said. “But to have a plan in place and not trying to scramble to figure it out, it was huge. And with every player, every person, any profession or walk of life, you’re going to need other people to help you along the way. Fortunately for me, I’ve had that.”
Decker wasted little time getting into that offseason routine, but first he had some nagging issues with his body he had to address — the little things that pile up for linemen during the course of the year, from jammed fingers to turf toe to sore joints and muscles.
Over the years, Decker has perfected taking care of his body, especially after a shoulder injury derailed the momentum he had at the start of his career. Part of that routine is daily use of an inversion table to ensure his core and back are strong. And this offseason, he put an emphasis on regaining flexibility in his ankles, which might seem insignificant, but is critical for an offensive lineman.
“I think everything starts with a good stance because if you’re not putting your body in a good position pre-play, it’s hard to perform once the ball is snapped,” Decker said.
Although it would be impossible to determine how much to credit the added ankle flexibility deserves, the biggest area of growth for Decker this season has been run blocking.
From an individual perspective it’s tough to put that improvement into context with statistics, but analytics site Pro Football Focus not only has him with the best run-blocking grade of his career, but he’s ranked as the top left tackle in league among those who have played at least 100 snaps.
Yet, like most who play his position, he’s always looking for ways to improve, even when things are seemingly going well.
“It’s never going to be perfect,” Decker said. “One thing in my self-scout would be being very precise with my footwork in the run game. There’s been good things in the run game and the production might be good, but I want my steps to be better, whether it’s front side of an inside zone or backside of an outside zone, continuing to work on small little details like that.”
Decker’s improvement didn’t come out of nowhere. He has been above-average since coming into the league, but his development did slow a bit after the shoulder injury in his second season. Still, the Lions liked him enough to reward him with a monster four-year, $60 million extension in August.
In the months leading up to that extension, when it still wasn’t clear whether it would get done, Decker always presented a calmness about the process. And now, on the other side of it, he’s exhibited a similar poise by performing at a high level when faced with the unstated pressures of living up to the big-money contract.
“Getting that deal, first of all, it’s an amazing thing,” he said. “But I didn’t want to let that change my mindset to say, oh, now I have to prove or justify that. As opposed to I have to go out there and do what I’m capable of doing, be a professional about how I go about my business and how I prepare myself and how I have my body ready, and then just go do what I do. Ultimately, that’s what I think a reflection of what a contract extension is we like what this guy is capable of doing, we like what he can do and we want him to keep doing it for us.”
If Decker can continue to play anywhere close to his current level, that contract is going to look like a bargain.
“He can be an elite left tackle at this level,” offensive line coach Hank Fraley said. “It’s just about hard work and I think that’s the mindset that he took this year was that he was going to outwork everybody and bring along his teammates with him.”
Where they rank
Where the Lions’ offensive linemen rank overall at their positions so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus (minimum 100 snaps):
► Taylor Decker, LT: 7th
► Tyrell Crosby, RT: 18th
► Halapoulivaati Vaitai, G: 30th
► Jonah Jackson, G: 31st
► Frank Ragnow, C: 6th