All signs point to left tackle Taylor Decker missing the season opener against the 49ers due to a finger injury. That, obviously, leaves the Detroit Lions in a bind, because they have little offensive tackle depth, Decker is one of their best players, and whoever they stick in his place is going to have to face up with game-wrecker Nick Bosa.
There is no good option here. The Lions are going to be at an extreme disadvantage whoever they put there. And while they haven’t announced a decision as to what they’re doing there, every sign points to rookie tackle Penei Sewell moving from right to left, with reserve Matt Nelson taking over at right tackle. That’s the way they were lined up during the first segments of Friday’s practice, and that’s where Sewell said he has been practicing at since Decker’s injury on Wednesday.
“Practice today and then practice yesterday too, just about those and also the reps during camp,” Sewell said of his reps at left tackle.
So primarily on the left side?
And while many are hoping that this could mean a potential permanent position swap for Sewell, he immediately shot that down after Friday’s practice.
“No, I am definitely right tackle.”
Naturally, this has sent some dooms-dayers into a panic. “The Lions are messing with Sewell’s development. They’re going to kill his confidence. Stick with one position and leave him there!”
And while this is certainly not a great situation to put Sewell in, I completely understand why they’re doing it. Let’s break it down.
You put your best player against Nick Bosa. Period.
The Lions simply don’t have a better option than Sewell to line up against Bosa. Do you want Matt Nelson and his one career start? A guy who just recently converted from the defensive side of the ball? Here’s Nelson’s answer on Friday to the question “which side do you feel the most comfortable at tackle?”
“I’m still trying to learn everything.”
Do you want that guy to go up against Nick Bosa?
Or, are we moving Halapoulivaati Vaitai to left tackle after we all decided last year that his time at tackle just wasn’t working, and his skill set is best suited inside? Not to mention, you’d then be forced to plug in Logan Stenberg at right guard. Stenberg hasn’t played a single offensive snap, and while he looked improved this preseason, he’s learning a second offensive scheme in as many years.
It may not matter to you if the Lions win this game or not, and you may rather prioritize Sewell’s development at right tackle, but the head coach can’t think that way. He can’t put the needs of one player over the needs of the team. He has a quarterback to protect, and Sewell at left tackle gives them the best opportunity for that.
But what about Sewell’s development?
Moving Sewell from left tackle to right tackle back to left tackle and eventually back to right tackle is going to hurt his development. It is. I concede that point. But we’re talking about a temporary thing here. Head coach Dan Campbell said Decker “will be back in a little bit.” It’s hard to know how long that may be, but it certainly sounds like more of the 3-6 weeks more so than a 10+ weeks situation.
If that’s the case, a four-week stint at left tackle isn’t going to kill this kid’s development. It’ll be a bump in the road, and then he’s back there acclimating to right tackle. Maybe it adds a couple of weeks, or even a month, to his development time. So what? This is a guy who the Lions are hoping will be their right tackle for at least the next five years. One month isn’t going to ruin that.
But what about his confidence?
They’re putting Sewell in a bad spot. He’s in a position to fail on Sunday. But that’s the life of a rookie. That’s the life of an offensive tackle. Hell, that’s the life of a football player. You’re going to get beat. You just are.
And look across the entire team. They’ve got an undrafted rookie scheduled to start at nickel cornerback. They’ve got rookies starting all over this roster in positions where they’re likely going to go through struggles.
It’s the job of this coaching staff to help them emotionally weather the storm, and it’s something we’ve heard them preach all offseason.
“Man, this is the NFL,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “It’s the best game in the world at the highest level. It’s hard for, in my opinion, the young guys to know that they’re in this situation and just totally not have confidence after making a bad play or not, because the one thing we will do, we will continue to get their confidence up. We’re not going to put them in a position or allow them to not have confidence, even if they do make mistakes, it’s our job as coaches to make sure we lift them and let them know, listen, you’re a rookie, things like that happen.”
Is this an ideal scenario for Sewell or the rest of the team? Of course it isn’t. When one of your best players—who just so happens to be going against the other team’s best player—gets injured, shit is going to hit the fan. But the drawbacks for Sewell are temporary, and in the meantime, you put your team in the best position to not have the quarterback leave on a stretcher. It’s as simple as that.