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Detroit Lions training camp battle preview: Rounding out the offensive line

Finishing off the Lions strongest position group.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Detroit Lions training camp is just a week away and we at Pride of Detroit are working our way through the best roster battles heading into the fall. In this edition, we wrap up the offense by focusing on the offensive line, so if you missed any of the previous articles, make sure you check out:

Setting the table on the offensive line

Arguably the top positional unit on the roster, the Lions return all five starters from last season and they used the seventh overall pick on the top offensive lineman in the draft, Penei Sewell, to further upgrade the group.

This unit typically finds itself among the top-10 ranks on most offseason lists—except for in ESPN’s flawed metric—and second-year guard Jonah Jackson believes they have the potential to be the best unit in the NFL.

If there is a potential weakness on the offensive line, it could be its depth, as veteran reserves Oday Aboushi and Joe Dahl departed this offseason, and were replaced by unproven young players.

Roster Construction

Throughout this series of articles, I have looked at the 53-man rosters of the Los Angeles Rams (GM Brad Holmes), New Orleans Saints (coach Dan Campbell), and Los Angeles Chargers (offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) at the beginning of the 2020 season in order to gain perspective on how the Lions may approach their initial roster in 2021.

Last offseason the NFL implemented new roster rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them included the option of expanding a team's game day roster size from 46 to 48 players as long as a minimum of eight of those players were offensive linemen. With this new rule in place, NFL teams were often shuffling their rosters during the season to be sure to include the minimum offensive linemen healthy and available, but their initial rosters appeared to maintain a traditional approach.

The Rams initially kept 10 offensive linemen but immediately put one on injured reserve, and operated with nine healthy linemen to start the season. The Saints started with only nine offensive linemen, and after just two weeks released one of them, essentially working with just the bare minimum of eight. The Chargers opened with 10 offensive linemen and maintained that number for most of the season.

Per NFL.com, the roster expansion rule will carry over to the 2021 season, meaning that at a minimum the Lions will carry eight offensive linemen, but how many more will they carry is the unanswered question. The Saints’ eight-man approach seems risky because they’ll be just one injury away from falling below the minimum, but carrying nine or 10 seems very realistic.

Projected starting five

The Lions aren’t allowed to practice in pads during spring camp, so we never got an official look at the team’s starting offensive line. But when observing drills, digesting comments from coaching staff, and examining the team’s approach to personnel, it appears they have a preference of which five they want starting.

  • Left tackle Taylor Decker: Decker is coming off his best season as a professional and graded out in the top-10, per PFF’s scale.
  • Left guard Jonah Jackson: Looking to build on his rookie season, Jackson will get the entire offseason to focus on one position, as well as build chemistry with his linemen. His stock is on the rise.
  • Center Frank Ragnow: Consistently landing as the NFL’s No. 1 or No. 2 center on most rankings, Ragnow is arguably the best player on this current roster regardless of position.
  • Right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai: Vaitai is poised for a bounce-back season, and the Lions have been planning on deploying him at guard since they took over—which shouldn’t be surprising considering he played better there than at right tackle last season.
  • Right tackle Penei Sewell: The rookie “has the skill set to be a stud right away” and his athletic gifts should make him a day one starter despite switching from the left to right side.

The Tyrell Crosby situation

After Vaitai was injured in training camp, Crosby seized the opportunity to secure the starting job at right tackle and was part of the reason why the Vaitai moved inside to guard—injuries on the interior offensive line being the other catalyst.

Crosby performed well last season, but after the Lions invested in Sewell in the draft, the fourth-year tackle appears headed back to the swing tackle role he has held the previous two seasons. This is technically being a reserve role, but Crosby still saw seven starts and nine games where he saw the majority of snaps over those two years (26 games played), illustrating how vital the swing tackle role is.

That being said, Crosby is entering the final year of his rookie contract, is coming off a season where he started 12 games, and with the front office looking towards the future, it’s not overly surprising that his name has been floated as a potential trade option.

Despite the trade rumors and the demotion, Lions’ offensive line coach Hank Fraley has insisted that “Crosby can be a great piece of the puzzle for us. You guys have seen it. He’s proved it.”

If Crosby sticks in Detroit, there is a clear role as the team’s sixth offensive linemen for him. It’s also possible they decide to expand his role to the interior and let him compete with Vaitai once again, though that is just speculation as there have been no indicators of that happening beyond some practice reps a few years ago.

For now, he’s still on the roster and could be the primary backup at multiple spots, but fans should keep an eye out for other teams who lose a lineman to injury during training camp/the preseason.

Reserves

Beyond Crosby, the Lions also return Matt Nelson (T/G), Dan Skipper (OT), Logan Stenberg (G), and Evan Brown (C/G). Additionally, the Lions also added 2020 UDFAs Darrin Paulo (OT) and Evan Heim (G), as well as 2021 UDFAs Drake Jackson (C) and Tommy Kraemer (G).

If Crosby is considered OL6, Nelson is probably OL7, as he has shown the ability to spot start when necessary and has the athleticism to kick inside to guard. Both players' ability to play multiple spots make them a very valuable commodity, especially considering the remaining reserves don’t have that flexibility—save Brown.

Brown should enter training camp as Ragnow’s direct backup at center but his ability to also play guard helps his cause tremendously. He will be challenged by the rookie Drake Jackson, who has an impressive ceiling but his body type (6-foot-2, 293 pounds) and skill set suggest he may be a center-only prospect. If Drake Jackson can expand his game in camp, and show he can survive at guard, he should push Brown for the backup center job and a possible spot on the 53-man roster.

Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson’s teammate at Kentucky and fourth-round draft pick in 2020, played just seven snaps as a rookie (all on special teams) but he had enough upside that the team kept him on the active roster all season. He is probably the front-runner for the top reserve guard spot, but he will be challenged by Kraemer and could still be behind Crosby, Nelson, and/or Brown in the pecking order.

Skipper and Paulo are likely pegged as third-team offensive tackles, Heim as third-team guard, making their paths to the roster steeper than the others on this list.

Erik’s Projection

The five starters (Decker, Jackson, Ragnow, Vaitai, Sewell) and top-two reserves (Crosby and Nelson) are locked in for me, giving the Lions’ a solid seven to operate from, but the two or three final spots are still up for grabs.

Stenberg is likely OL8 based on his upside but we haven’t seen him take the field in a competitive situation in almost a year so it’s difficult to project how far he has developed since last year’s training camp. His role is far from set in stone.

The battle for OL9 appears to be between Brown versus Drake Jackson as the team will need a capable reserve center and the pair have the most potential at the position. For now Brown carries the slight edge heading into camp.

If the Lions opt for 10 offensive linemen, the loser of the Brown/Jackson battle will be looking over his shoulder at the rest of the reserves, likely led by Kraemer at this time.