In the 2013 season, the Detroit Lions benefited from a breakout season by veteran linebacker DeAndre Levy. The spike in his productivity was stunning:
Good teams always seem to benefit from players who make big leaps from one year to the next. Sometimes it's young players maturing. Other times it's guys seizing upon increased opportunities. And sometimes it's just the sun shining where it hasn't before and might never again.
The Lions have several candidates for breakout campaigns in 2014. Some of these players have already begun to emerge, while others are bound to be pleasant surprises.
Here are six of those candidates. If even half these guys make the kind of leap that Levy did, the Lions will have a very successful season.
It's arguable that LaAdrian Waddle has already broken out, since he went from undrafted rookie to starting right tackle in the matter of months. Yet he can get even better.
We've only seen the tip of the iceberg of talent from him. He had to completely alter his pass protection set from Texas Tech's unconventional vertical technique, as well as flip from the left side to the right.
Despite those obstacles, he did not allow a sack, according to PFF. In fact, Waddle graded out higher than any of the three tackles who were taken in the first four picks of the draft: Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson.
Now that he has established himself as the starting right tackle, he can focus even more on cleaning up the holes in his game, namely his footwork. It was surprisingly competent in his rookie campaign, but with more time to watch tape and learn, it can be even better.
His confidence and comfort in playing with his linemates will only grow as well. He and Riley Reiff should give the Lions strong offensive tackle play for the next few seasons. The fact that both can play either side only bolsters the bullishness.
Cornerback Darius Slay got off to a rocky start in his rookie season. The second-round draft pick out of Mississippi State got torched for touchdowns in each of the first two games and was summarily benched.
After hardly playing between Weeks 8 and 12, he re-entered the secondary fray late in the season. What we saw of the young corner then is why he is a prime candidate to break out in 2014.
He's always had the physical tools; the height, speed, length and strength are all there. The issue was his eyes, and his confidence in what those eyes were seeing.
His vision and sense of the game developed. Slay still wasn't outstanding, but his play markedly improved. He looked like he realized he can play in the NFL.
The Lions are counting on the second-year talent to lock down a starting role and never relinquish it to poor play again. As long as his confidence remains high, Slay should handle that task admirably.
Devin Taylor was a bit of an afterthought heading into the 2013 season. A fourth-round pick out of South Carolina, he was seen as something of a project—a gifted athlete but not one necessarily ready to contribute in the NFL.
He started the season behind Willie Young, Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones and Israel Idonije on the depth chart. Yet by the end of the year, he and fellow rookie Ansah were on the field together quite a bit.
With Idonije and Young both being free agents who are unlikely to return, Taylor will be given a much bigger role. He earned it based on his play at the end of last season.
The biggest key for him will be consistency. His game charts from PFF vacillate back and forth from pretty good to downright lousy.
Given his impressive physical skills and promise he showed as a rookie, Taylor could bag seven or eight sacks and match that total in passes defended in 2014.
This potential breakout has been a long time in the making. Greenwood was the Lions' fifth-round pick in 2012 as an athletic project out of D-II Albion College.
He spent his entire rookie season as the NFL version of a medical redshirt. His rawness still reared its ugly head during the 2013 preseason, and it ultimately led him to leave Detroit for Dallas.
The change, to misquote Sheryl Crow, did him some good. Being exposed to a different coaching staff seemed to have helped him. Even though he never made it on the field, his Cowboys experience aided him.
When Dallas gave up too, frustrated that the 6'2" stud with the 43" vertical leap and 4.34 40-yard dash time—thanks to Carlos Monarrez at the Detroit Free Press for the numbers—played with an ineffective timidity, the Lions gave him another chance.
His brief audition at the end of 2013 finally demonstrated why general manager Martin Mayhew took such a raw talent with such a valuable pick. Greenwood played outstanding against the Giants in Week 16, ceding just nine yards on five passes in his direction, per PFF.
He also played well in the finale against Minnesota. Even though Cordarrelle Patterson beat him for a touchdown, Greenwood was in good position and reacted well. Corners are going to get beaten in the NFL, and the way he responded showed positive growth.
With Seattle's success with big, physical cover men, teams are dying to get guys with those attributes. The Lions happen to have one in Greenwood, and his arrow is definitely pointing up.
If he clicks with the new coaching staff, he could emerge as the cornerback that most everyone believes the Lions desperately need. He'll get his chance.
Veteran defensive back Don Carey falls into the category that DeAndre Levy did a year ago, as a relatively nondescript player who suddenly erupts into a Pro Bowl-worthy standout.
Carey, who was recently re-signed by Detroit, could have a greatly expanded role in 2014. Per Kyle Meinke of MLive, Carey signed for three years and a very affordable $3.035 million.
If Louis Delmas is released in a salary-cap maneuver, Carey is the new de facto starting free safety. He's already infinitely more reliable in run support than the wild Delmas, as noted by their PFF run-defense scores. Carey's smart, positionally sound play made several appearances in game notes.
Even if Delmas returns, Carey figures to play quite a bit. His versatility allows him to play either safety spot, as well as covering the slot or short side of the field as a corner. That versatility proved a bit of a curse, however.
He was at his best at safety in 2013, and that's why he can break out in 2014. Staying in just one role would give him the opportunity to focus at just one spot, instead of not knowing when or where he is going to play.
I hear your contemptuous snickering. How in the world can the starting quarterback—a man who has thrown for almost 15,000 yards in the last three years, a player once the first pick in the draft—possibly be a candidate for a breakout season?
He absolutely can improve, and with the new coaching staff and modified offense in place, he should. He's teased us with All-Pro potential here and there throughout his career. When the Lions were 6-3 and roaring proud last season, Stafford was a dark-horse MVP candidate.
Unfortunately, the bottom fell out after that great start. He morphed into an erratic, mechanically unsound, sullen disaster down the stretch as the Lions crashed and burned. His terrible play late in 2013 is no small reason why the coaching staff has changed.
2014 is the year Stafford can finally take that proverbial next step and put his name up there with the very best in the NFL.
The key will be consistency. Coach Jim Caldwell and his offensive staff have some work to do in getting him to focus on proper mechanics and playing smarter. Caldwell worked that magic with Joe Flacco in Baltimore and has a Super Bowl ring to show for it.
Making Stafford accountable for his actions should foster the progress. If he truly wants it, greatness is there for the taking.