Tuesday morning started with just about as bad of news as possible for the Detroit Lions. Their first-round draft pick from 2016, and current starting left tackle, Taylor Decker underwent shoulder surgery and is out for the foreseeable future.
Last year, Decker graded out as the second-best rookie tackle among his class, and some were pegging the former Buckeye to be a perennial Pro Bowler.
There’s no way to spin this: This is absolutely devastating news for the Detroit Lions.
But it’s a reality now, and the Lions have to move on. The 2017 season hasn’t even started yet and there’s no reason to throw in the towel with so much talent elsewhere on the roster. Here’s a look at what Detroit can and will do next.
Taylor Decker’s future
Head coach Jim Caldwell was non-committal to a timeline for Decker’s recovery. “Anytime that you’ve had surgery, you just don’t know details of how long it will actually take,” Caldwell said.
Surgery always require quite a bit of recovery time, so it’s very possible, if not extremely likely, that the Lions place Decker on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list at the beginning of training camp.
If you need a brush-up on what the PUP list is, here’s a quick explanation: a player is placed on the PUP list prior to the start of training camp and cannot be placed there once camp begins. Once on the PUP list, a player cannot practice until medically cleared, but if cleared during training camp the player can return to practice immediately. If a player is still on the PUP list by the beginning of the regular season, the team can decide to activate him or transfer him to the Reserve/PUP list, which frees up a roster spot but prohibits him from playing and practicing for the first six weeks of the season.
Once the six weeks are up, teams have another six weeks to decide whether to place the player on injured reserve, return him to practice or release him outright. If he returns to practice, the team has another three-week window to return to the active 53-man roster or place him on IR.
The Lions could also choose to place him on injured reserve immediately, but that would end his 2017 season completely. Decker would not be eligible for one of the two returns from injured reserve because only players placed on IR after the 53-man roster cutdowns are eligible to return. If the Lions decide to place him on IR during the season, Decker could return to practice after at least six weeks on IR.
Unfortunately, we just don’t know how likely either of these scenarios are right now. The one promising note from Caldwell was that when he was asked if this could end Decker’s 2017 season, he answered, “I don’t think so, but like I said, I’m not a physician.”
Who plays left tackle now?
The Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett made an interesting observation last night while looking through the photo gallery of Monday’s OTA practices:
Looking at some of the Lions' OTA pictures today, Joe Dahl played LT next to Graham Glasgow. Don't recall Dahl playing much beyond OG in '16— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) June 5, 2017
Joe Dahl, a fifth-round selection in 2016, was a versatile backup in his rookie year. Though he didn’t start a game last year, he did some spot work as a replacement guard when the injury bug hit Detroit’s offensive line. Coming from a small school, Dahl spent his rookie year just trying to catch up to a complicated offense. “I really had five or six plays in college so just having to learn the complexities of an offense and I had no idea, in terms of how complicated this is relative to other NFL offenses,” Dahl told ESPN back in January.
The move to left tackle would be a huge step for him, but it may be a necessity for Detroit. In his press conference Tuesday, Caldwell did not seem interested in moving newly-added Rick Wagner to the left side of the line. “He’s certainly capable, but right now he’s at the right side,” Caldwell said.
Other in-house options include former Corey Robinson, Cornelius Lucas and undrafted free agent Storm Norton. Of those three, Lucas has the most experience, starting six games for the Lions at right tackle over three years. Robinson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2015, may be the most realistic option behind Dahl. He was a three-year starter at left tackle for South Carolina and started three games at right tackle last season for Detroit. Storm Norton would make a great story, but the towering offensive lineman (6-foot-8, 306 pounds) has little chance to win the job.
The big point here is that the Lions have to be scrambling right now. Just look at how their top options performed last year:
2016 PFF grades for Decker's potential replacements:— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) June 6, 2017
Lucas: 55.4 pic.twitter.com/W7Q9KghHDr
Mini-update: Here’s how Detroit replaced Decker during Tuesday’s practice:
Joe Dahl and Cornelius Lucas took turns replacing Taylor Decker at left tackle in OTAs today. UDFA Storm Norton got most of the reps w/ 2s— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) June 6, 2017
Overall, the Lions just have to hope for the best. Losing Decker for any part of the regular season would be huge for a team that relies so heavily on the passing game. With so little information out there on Decker’s injury, it’s too early to jump to any conclusions on if or when Decker will return in 2017. One thing is for certain, however: Detroit doesn’t currently have a backup option anywhere near Decker’s level of play, and that’s not great news for Matthew Stafford.