ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Devin Taylor entered 2016 as a candidate to have a breakout season. He has all the physical attributes to be a havoc-causing defensive end and after a second half of 2015 where he made play after play, it looked like the Detroit Lions might have their bookend defensive end to pair with Ezekiel Ansah.
It never really materialized.
Taylor, who was in the final year of his contract, didn’t perform up to those higher expectations. After a 35-tackle, 7-sack season in 2015, he had 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season after starting every game at defensive end, taking over the role once inhabited by Jason Jones.
After 3.5 sacks in his first six games, he had one the rest of the season. After 13 tackles the first two weeks of the season, he didn’t have more than three in a game the rest of the year and had three games where he went without a single stop.
Taylor described his season to ESPN.com as “solid,” but recognized the chances for big plays weren’t there.
“I mean, with the way we’ve been played against the entire season and quarterbacks and everything, there’s limited opportunities for a lot of different things,” Taylor said. “Whether it be like a tackle or a sack or an interception or something like that, you get them when you can.”
Those numbers were hurt a bit by the consistent opposing strategy of throwing the ball short and fast, keeping Taylor and Ansah from reaching the quarterback. But Taylor’s play also raised a larger concern as he enters potential free agency.
With Detroit having a poor pass rush -- something pretty much everyone acknowledged this season -- one must wonder how much of that is on scheme and how much of it is on the players involved. The Lions never expressed frustration with Taylor -- after all, he started every game on a defensive line where rotation was commonplace -- but it wasn’t the breakout season it could have been.
“Everybody equates effectiveness with sacks,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We haven’t done a good job of it overall in terms of getting to the quarterback and a lot of that has to do with how quarterbacks are. They get the ball out a lot faster, the screen.
“I think Devin has played decent for us this year. I’m not saying he’s played worse or better than he did last year. I’m not displeased with what he’s done, I guess is the best way to answer that.”
Part of that was potentially due to a role shift. Austin said Taylor became a better run defender this season, something that needed to happen if he was going to replace Jones, who was an edge-setter against the run opposite Ansah in 2014 and 2015.
Taylor said he didn’t worry much about his upcoming free agency when he was playing this year because he tries not to look at the future too much.
“If you think about it too much, then you start worrying about the wrong stuff and everything,” Taylor said. “For me, I just put more focus on the little technique stuff that I know I consistently need to work on like every game and everything.
“I focus on that more than the big picture. I worry about that after the fact.”
This, now, is the after-the-fact part of Taylor’s season. It’s not clear what the Lions will do with him, either. Detroit has to upgrade its pass rush if it wants to become more of a contender in the NFC. It also has Kerry Hyder, a versatile defensive end who could be in line for a bigger role in 2017.
And the Lions figure to focus on upgrading the defensive line in the offseason as well. So it leaves Taylor in an interesting position as he heads into free agency for the first time in his career. So far, Taylor hasn’t thought about it.
But the next step in his career could be coming.
“I mean, I don’t know,” Taylor said last month. “It’s whatever they like and everything, whether they like me and whatnot. I’m playing to my abilities.”
Now, the Lions have to decide if that’s enough to want him back.