The Detroit Lions are facing an offseason in which their offensive line could go through some serious changes. Three guards are facing free agency. Right tackle Rick Wagner could be a potential cap casualty with his salary reaching levels that his play may not warrant.
And on top of all of that, the Lions have a crucial decision they need to make soon about the status of their left tackle, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Let’s take a closer look at the case of Taylor Decker.
Expectations heading into 2019
There was a moderate amount of concern for Decker’s career after a disappointing 2018 season. After fully recovering from his shoulder injury, there was belief Decker would bounce back that year, but that never happened. Decker’s play was adequate, but it was nowhere near the level of his rookie season, which made it look like the Lions had struck gold with the 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
2019 was going to be the make-or-break season for Decker. If he got his mojo back, the Lions had their left tackle of the future. If he didn’t, drafting his replacement was on the table for 2020.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 15 games (15 starts)
PFF grade: 75.5 (18th of 88 qualifying OTs)
While PFF credited Decker with seven sacks allowed this season—a pretty high number amongst his cohorts—he definitely took a big leap in play that Detroit was hoping for. In the final 10 weeks of the regular season, he ranked out as PFF’s sixth best offensive tackle. That’s higher than guys like Jason Peters, Jack Conklin, Mitchell Schwartz and La’el Collins.
He may not have been playing at an absolute elite level, but he definitely took a step up and established himself as an above-average left tackle, something that is highly valued in this league.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2020
Decker is entering a contract year, which means this offseason he could be the recipient on a big extension—his first in the NFL.
To give you an idea of what the going rate for a left tackle is, here are some recently-signed left tackle contracts, along with the player’s corresponding PFF grade the year prior to the deal.
(2020) D.J. Humphries: Three years, $44. 25 million ($14.6M/year) — PFF Grade: 64.5
(2019) Lane Johnson: Four years, $72 million ($18M/year) — PFF Grade: 88.8
(2019) Trent Brown*: Four years, $66 million ($16.5M/year) — PFF Grade: 72.8
*Technically a right tackle
(2018) Taylor Lewan: Five years, $80 million ($16M/year) — PFF Grade: 76.4
(2018) Nate Solder: Four years, $62 million ($15.5M/year) — PFF Grade: 75.5
Decker hasn’t proven his value to be amongst the likes of Solder, Lewan, or Johnson, but Humphries’ extension from earlier this year provides an interesting datapoint.
It’s probably safe to say Decker is going to cost somewhere in the $14-16 million range if the Lions want to sign him long term. Detroit appears to be going the more fiscal route with other offensive line positions (see: Graham Glasgow). Is that to make room for Decker’s extension?
The Lions haven’t really tipped their hand when it comes to their comfort level in Decker. Obviously, exercising his fifth-year option last offseason was one vote of confidence. Late in the season, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell also seemed to be happy with the level of play he was getting from Decker.
“Taylor has done a really nice job for us. Number one, in terms of him being a leader and really stepping up. He’s taken a little bit more vocal role at times. He’s being a good example for the younger guys. He’s just playing at a high level. He’s protecting the quarterback well. He’s doing a pretty good job for us in the run game as well. I think he’s playing at a pretty consistent level and something that we know the level that he is going to play at every week and what we can expect. I think that’s high praise when you say that you’re playing at a pretty consistent level week-in and week-out.”
Considering all of the other team needs, the Lions may want to just lock this one up for the long term, even if it comes at a big price. Of course, that’s the same rationale for keeping Graham Glasgow around, so who knows?