Hal Vaitai has been fighting an uphill battle since he was signed by the Detroit Lions in the 2020 offseason.
It started when former general manager Bob Quinn gave Vaitai a five-year, $45 million contract, well above expectations for a career backup who had just 20 starts with the Philadelphia Eagles. But the Lions liked his positional versatility and the fact that he played left tackle during the Eagles Super Bowl run in 2018.
Making matters worse, with the heavy monetary investment in Vaitai, the Lions could no longer afford fan-favorite, and top-10 guard Graham Glasgow—someone many had been watching for the previous eight seasons, four with the Lions and four with the Michigan Wolverines—and he signed a lucrative contract with the Denver Broncos.
Expectations were high for Vaitai. Not only was he expected to start at right tackle but the decisions made by the previous front office put him in a difficult spot.
Further complicating things, after a solid start to training camp, Vaitai suffered a significant setback after injuring his foot—an injury that would linger throughout the season.
When Vaitai was ready to return to action in Week 3, he had lost his starting job at right tackle to Tyrell Crosby, and former coach Matt Patricia elected to push him inside to right guard. His first game back was rough, but he was able to right the ship and strung together several solid games, though the injury was still obviously impacting his play. He missed half a game in Week 6, then missed Week 10 completely, before landing on injured reserve in Week 12. When Vaitai was removed from I.R. in Week 15, Crosby was now on I.R. and Vaitai took over at right tackle for the final three weeks of the season, but he never looked settled.
With a new Lions’ front office and coaching staff in place in 2021, all returning player’s spots on the roster are unknown, but Vaitai has two things working in his favor. First, his contract all but guarantees he will stick around at least one more season as he still has $14.6 million in guarantees remaining—meaning it would cost the team more to cut him than to retain him. Second, last year’s offensive line coach Hank Fraley was retained, and he believes that Vaitai can be an important piece of the Lions puzzle moving forward.
“Everything didn’t go right for him (Vaitai) last year and it starts with just being healthy,” Fraley said to the Lions media. “If he’s a healthy player—he was having a really good training camp, but unfortunately he had to fight through his injuries and it really affected him all year.”
Fraley wouldn’t go on to talk about how difficult it is to stay healthy in the NFL but when Vaitai was, he was consistent—something Fraley values highly.
“If he stays healthy, his consistency before he got hurt was really good, he was having a great training camp, and that injury really set him back” Fraley continued. “I’m looking forward to year two with him, because he is a large man, and he can move the line of scrimmage.”
Coach Dan Campbell has said the Lions plan on keeping Vaitai inside at guard, and after drafting Penei Sewell, right guard is really the only spot on the offensive line not yet claimed. With the Lions' focus on the running game, Vaitai’s ability to move people off the line of scrimmage could be a very valuable asset.
In the clips below, keep an eye on Lions No. 72 (at right guard) for a reminder of the power he possesses in the run game:
Vaitai folding up the DT like a beach chair pic.twitter.com/vm7Ab9Cohy— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 6, 2020
D’Andre Swift’s 54-yarder vs Jacksonville — always thank your guards, folks.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) October 21, 2020
Split zone with two backside routes to create extra space. But Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai are the main event(s) here. pic.twitter.com/bWWJkRoK6J
And a third:
“That guy can do a lot of things that people in this league can’t,” Fraley concluded. “He’s athletic, he’s big, moving the line scrimmage in this league is hard to do, you can pull him, you can anchor in pass protection. I’m excited for him. He’s played a lot of ball. He played a lot of ball in Philadelphia. I mean, he was the starting left tackle when they won the Super Bowl. He’s played a lot of ball, he’s experienced. And why couldn’t he be part of this puzzle?”
With Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow at center, and prized first-rounder Sewell at right tackle, Vaitai is in a much better situation than he was a year ago. His mauler skill set fits in perfectly with what the Lions are looking for at right guard and the coaching staff is very optimistic about his ability to be successful in 2021. But he’s got to stay healthy.