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Monday, December 16, 2013
Warford is standing out on Lions' O-line

By Michael Rothstein

Larry Warford
Rookie Larry Warford has been a rock on the offensive line for the Detroit Lions.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Larry Warford would be in his hotel room the night before games the first month of this season, sick to his stomach. Not physically ill and not actually throwing up, but being a rookie, the nerves were strong.

"What if I mess up?" he would think to himself. "What if I allow a sack? What if I blow an assignment?" These thoughts would run through his head as he pondered how he would protect Matthew Stafford and open holes for the Detroit Lions' running backs.

Then he'd wake up the next morning and play. And he'd look like nothing bothered him at all. This was his learning process, how he slowly began to gain comfort throughout the season, throughout his rookie year in which he went from draft pick to starter to standout in a handful of months.

“I could feel it changing,” Warford said. “The stress going into games wasn't nearly as bad as it had been when I first got there.”

Now, there is no stress at all. The thoughts have deviated from worrying about messing up to making sure he is prepared with all of his assignments. It is, in many ways, a relaxing and comfortable period for him now, and it has showed. On one of the best -- and most overlooked -- offensive lines in football, the rookie is having the best season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Warford has not allowed a sack in any of his 946 snaps this season. He's allowed Detroit's quarterbacks to be hit a total of four times and hurried nine times. All of those are numbers that are at a Pro Bowl level for the player who was beginning to prepare for the NFL draft at this point last year. PFF rates him as the fourth-best guard in the NFL and the second-best right guard behind Denver's Louis Vasquez.

He's done all this because of his consistency; something that was somewhat unexpected. Part of his success comes from how he plays. He is capable at both run and pass blocking, so there isn't a true weakness in his game that has been exploited yet. He's also been healthy, listed on the injury report less than a handful of times all season.

And the way he plays -- and prepares -- changed him from a rookie to a seasoned player before his first season even concluded.

“I never really looked at him as a rookie who was going to have growing pains,” center Dominic Raiola said.

Warford's play has been noticed, even if it isn't reflected in Pro Bowl voting, where he is not among the top 10 guards. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden singled him out over the weekend as one of the more noticeable additions to the Lions, calling him an “eye-opener” as a rookie.

And although it is unlikely he will win the NFL's offensive rookie of the year award -- no offensive lineman has ever won the award -- he probably should be in the conversation for it.

Not that it matters to Warford at all. He can't be focused on that, mostly because he said if he starts to look at those types of accolades, it might change how he has treated this entire season.

He called it “cool,” but that was about it. His expectations for this season never changed. Not when he was drafted. Not when he was competing for and then won the right guard job in training camp, and not through every start since.

“Why fix what's not broken, you know?” Warford said. “That's what got me better throughout training camp. I was struggling and it kept building on the foundation that my coaches laid out for me, and that worked.

“It got me the starting job. It's an ongoing process.”

It is a process that is not typical for rookies. Even within his own team. Most of Detroit's other rookies -- a deep and talented class -- either didn't win jobs out of camp or have struggled with inconsistency or injuries.

Then there's Warford. The same every week.

“It's not surprising. It's just unusual for a guy, and the opportunity was there early for him, but it's unusual for a guy to play as consistent as he has been early in his career,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “I credit him. I credit his coaches, with Jeremiah [Washburn] and [Terry Heffernan], we've done a good job of putting some young guys out there.

“We changed the makeup of our line with some new players. We're very young up front, but they aren't playing like a young group.”

No, they aren't. That's probably a good thing for the Lions, because with three of the five starters less than two seasons into their NFL careers, there is both room to grow and the chance they will be together for a long time.

That could be led by Warford, who knows that as consistent as he's been, he still has a ways to go. Just consider how far he has come in less than a season. Starting with his confidence, he has changed a lot.

“It's not even close, man,” Warford said. “It's a completely different person.”

Not really. He's just believing in himself more and more.