The Detroit Lions’ offensive line is much like the roads in Michigan: Always under construction and always filled with holes. For periods of time, it looks like everything could run smoothly, but it never lasts.
Whether it’s the interior or the edges of the offensive line, the Lions just can’t seem to get everyone on the same page at once. They’ll finally have the interior of their offensive line figured out, only to still be searching for that future left tackle. Or they’ll finally nail down their left tackle and they’ll maddingly rotate their interior linemen in an effort to either find the right combination or just piss off the fans. It’s probably the first one, but I can’t be too sure.
If there’s been one constant, it’s that the Lions haven’t had much stability at the right tackle position. In the past 10 years, here are the players that have rotated in and out of the position: Rick Wagner, Riley Reiff, Michael Ola, LaAdrian Waddle, Corey Hilliard, and Gosder Cherilus.
This year, the Lions’ offensive line went under construction yet again, starting with that right tackle position.
Here’s our 2020 training camp preview for the offensive tackles.
Roster locks: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Taylor Decker, Tyrell Crosby
On the bubble: N/A
Long shot: Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper
Key departures: Rick Wagner
Will the investment in Big V pay off?
Just three years ago, Lions general manager Bob Quinn handed free agent Rick Wagner a five-year, $47.5 million contract. After a mediocre few seasons, he was cut and Quinn, again, took his aim at free agency. Eagles backup swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai was the recipient of an almost identical five-year, $45 million contract.
Though Vaitai comes with less experience than Wagner, he’s a bit younger and comes with a higher ceiling. Stuck behind All Pros Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, Vaitai never got a chance to truly crack the starting lineup. But in injury relief, Vaitai performed decently.
His addition may also represent a change in identity along the front five. Vaitai is much more of a mauler in the run game than he is a pass protector. Combine that with some truly mean guys in the interior, and it’s clear Detroit is trying to become more big and physical rather than quick and athletic.
Taylor Decker extension coming?
Decker is currently on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal—costing the Lions $10.35 million in 2020. Although Decker hasn’t been the most consistent player on the roster—especially after his shoulder injury in 2017—he finished 2019 among the league’s best tackles, and has never truly been a liability.
If PFF is any indication, Taylor Decker is earning himself a hefty extension in the near future.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) December 9, 2019
Since Week 9, he's been a top-5 OT.
Decker found himself a new agency this offseason, and with no clear competition on the roster, it does seem like the former first-round pick is on his way to a new deal in Detroit. As I estimated back in March, Decker’s contract will probably fall around the $14-16 million per year range, which is more than affordable considering the Lions’ current favorable salary cap situation.
Any surprises coming?
While Tyrell Crosby doesn’t exactly fit the “bigger and stronger” prototype the Lions may be seeking in their tackles, he has the most experience of Detroit’s depth, and he’s been solid as a replacement swing tackle.
But Matt Nelson and Dan Skipper spent plenty of time with the team last year, although mostly on the practice squad. Both must have made a good enough impression to stick around with the team this year. Nelson, and undrafted rookie in 2019, has yet to make a game appearance, while Skipper saw some playing time with the Texans last year before being cut. After the Lions scooped him up, Skipper went to the practice squad before finishing the season on the 53-man roster with some special teams appearances.
Both feel like longer-term projects, but if either makes a big jump in training camp, they could potentially challenge Crosby for the backup job, or even justify the team keeping four offensive tackles on the 53.
I don’t think we see any surprises this year. The Lions kept three offensive tackles on the 53-man roster for the majority of the season in 2019, and they should be able to stash one or two on the practice squad in case of emergency. Both Nelson and Skipper are practice squad eligible without taking up a veteran spot, and both could probably use more time before being thrown into action.