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Lions 2018 awards: Kenny Golladay fills big shoes for most improved

The Detroit Lions have wrapped up the 2018 season, and it’s time for MLive’s annual awards. Over the next six days, we’ll be handing these honors out, starting today with most improved.

Previous awards: Offensive MVP, Defensive MVP, Special teams MVP, Best rookie

Most improved: WR Kenny Golladay

Key stats: Led the Lions with 70 receptions for 1,063 yards and 5 touchdowns, up from 28 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns in 2017

Honorable mention: DT A’Shawn Robinson, LB Jarrad Davis, LT Taylor Decker

It can be tricky locating a most improved player on the Lions this season. The team fell back to 6-10 from back-to-back 9-7 seasons largely because the known commodities didn’t get better. Many of the veterans actually got worse.

But in a season as trying as this one was, what the Lions hoped they’d find was a building block who would show that clear upward trend. They found it in Kenny Golladay, and they found it through means they didn’t know would exist when they set out on the season.

The last pick of the third round in 2017, Golladay had an intriguing rookie year that was short on time. He played 11 of 16 games due to some nagging injuries, and in those, he produced 477 yards and three scores on a gaudy 17 yards per catch. He was a splash play complement on deeper routes when Marvin Jones and Golden Tate drew the coverage away. He was what they’d realistically hoped he’d be as a rookie: raw but talented enough to take advantage of mismatches.

That was still the hope in 2018, just with less rawness and better health in his second year with Matthew Stafford. Jones was still supposed to be the No. 1, winning down the field as Tate brought the consistency down low. Golladay was supposed to be something in between.

He was more than that in the seven games those three played together, as he matched his 2017 receiving total in just that span. But then everything about his role changed when the Lions shipped Tate to the Eagles for a third-round pick and then two weeks later, Jones went down for the count.

All of a sudden, the guy who was supposed to work those occasional plays against the third cornerbacks was the one circled on opposing defenses’ game plans. The Lions didn’t even have Kerryon Johnson to distract for much longer, and soon their only real chances of moving the ball down the field lied in No. 19.

And that’s when Golladay showed where he’s come. He was the most improved Lions player, giving him a second of our awards after already taking offensive MVP.

His growth wasn’t so much technical, as he’s still a big and clunky body with a limited route tree. Rather, it showed up in heart and desire, the way he skied for those passes like Jones used to, or ripped the ball from defenders for a catch or his best imitation of a defensive back. He had moments where he was trying to will the Lions to a win, and it worked against the Panthers and nearly did against the Bills, right as the Lions were in a tailspin.

He wasn’t the only player to show improvement from 2017, even if it felt that way at times. Jarrad Davis and A’Shawn Robinson had strong second halves of run support after shaky starts to their second season, but so much of that growth can be tied to the acquisition of Damon Harrison at nose tackle. Taylor Decker played better than he did in 2017, but that’s largely because 2017 was cut in half by a torn labrum.

In the final seven games this season, Golladay posted 540 yards and two touchdowns. His catch rate was barely over 50 percent and he still wasn’t quite the red-zone threat some had been hoping for, though that was also rooted in play design.

Golladay showed he can do some good things without Tate drawing the safeties in and Jones taking the top cornerback. He can keep a team in games it shouldn’t be in sometimes. That’s what the Lions needed so badly after they dealt Tate. It’s one of the few successes of their season.

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