Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is just around the corner and we will be wrapping up the offensive side of the ball in our positional battle series by taking a look at the offensive line.
If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered so far:
- How many quarterbacks will be on the active roster?
- Reserve running backs’ jobs are up for grabs
- How will the wide receiver room adapt its hierarchy?
- Who is ready to lead the tight end group?
Setting the table
Drafting Penei Sewell in 2021 was supposed to be the final piece of the Lions' offensive line puzzle, but since then, they have yet to have all five projected starters play a regular season game together. In 2021, Taylor Decker missed the first half of the season and Frank Ragnow missed the final 12 games. Then in 2022, Halapoulivaati Vaitai injured his back in training camp and missed the entire season. Jonah Jackson also missed three games last season, the only games he missed during his three-year career.
In the spring, the Lions were cautious with their starting five, resting Ragnow and Vaitai as much as possible, with the long-term goal of bringing all five starters into the season healthy for the first time.
To offset some of the previous injury woes, the Lions have been diligent in looking for durable replacement options. Matt Nelson filled in for Decker in 2021, Evan Brown (who is now with the Seahawks) filled in for Ragnow and Vaitai, guard Kayode Awosika got a shot inside before being injured himself, Logan Stenberg got multiple chances at guard, as did Dan Skipper, who is no longer with the Lions and remains a free agent. Ross Pierschbacher spent most of the season on the practice squad, and while he was a late-season elevation, he only saw action on special teams over three games. Obinna Eze and Darrin Paulo were also on the practice squad last season but never saw any game action.
In addition to returning Nelson, Awoskia, Stenberg, Pierschbacher, Eze, and Paulo, the Lions added veterans Graham Glasgow (to replace Brown) and Germain Ifedi (to replace Skipper), drafted Colby Sorsdal in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, and signed three undrafted rookies: Connor Galvin, Ryan Swoboda, and Brad Cecil. The final, and 18th offensive lineman on the roster is Max Pircher, who doesn’t count toward the Lions’ roster count because he is a part of the NFL’s international player program.
Because Vaitai’s injury occurred late in camp, the Lions were pressed to make a difficult decision to replace him. The most natural internal replacement was Tommy Kraemer, but he also injured his back before the season, leaving the Lions in a bind.
When cut day arrived, the Lions opted to keep 9 offensive linemen but immediately sent Vaitai to injured reserve and claimed Drew Forbes off waivers. The Lions quickly knew Forbes wasn’t the answer, claimed Awosika off waivers the next week, and in turn, placed Kraemer on injured reserve. The Lions kept 10 offensive linemen for two more weeks, then released Forbes, bringing the offensive line total to nine, where it more or less remained for the rest of the season.
Keeping nine offensive linemen on the roster seems like the preferred number for Detroit, which will make this year’s training camp battles very interesting as several spots appear to already be accounted for.
The interior offensive line battleground
The projected starting five—Decker, Jackson, Ragnow, Vaitai, and Sewell—seem pretty solidified at this point and will take up over half the spots allocated for the offensive line group.
The top challenger for a starting role is Glasgow, who should push Vaitai for the starting job at right guard. At worst, Glasgow appears to be the top reserve because of his skill set and his ability to play all three interior offensive line spots (both guard positions and center) Additionally, he has a bigger salary cap hit if they release him ($3M) than if they keep him ($2.68M), further making his case for a roster spot.
After Glasgow, the remaining six players challenging for an interior depth role may all be fighting for one or two spots on the active roster and another on the practice squad. Here are the challengers.
Colby Sorsdal. While being drafted by this regime is not a guarantee that Sorsdal will make the roster, every player drafted by the Lions during Brad Holmes’ tenure as general manager—save James Houston—has made the initial 53-man roster as a rookie. And there’s a reason for that: Holmes drafts solid players and Sorsdal is no different. Despite transitioning in from right tackle (in college) to guard, Sorsdal is a fluid mover with power for days, and a mentality to bury his opponent.
Ross Pierschbacher. Repping with the starters in the spring while Ragnow rested and Glasgow rotated with Vaitai at right guard, Pierschbacher is quietly making a name for himself. The Lions thought enough of him to sign him to the 53-man roster late in the year, and he can play all three interior spots, which checks a lot of boxes for this coaching staff.
Kayode Awosika. As the Lions searched for a player to stabilize the right guard spot in 2022, Awosika got starts in Weeks 12 and 13. He struggled in his first start and looked better in his second but an injury in that game derailed his season. Now healthy, he could be a sleeper candidate to rejoin the 53-man roster.
Logan Stenberg. In the final year of his rookie contract, it may be now or never for Stenberg. After being given two chances to earn a starting role last season, he struggled in both and was pulled in his second. The Lions are cross-training Stenberg at center (again) in an effort to help him find a role.
Darrin Paulo. Capable of playing tackle and guard, Paulo has been on and off the Lions roster and practice squad since 2021. The Lions thought enough of him to keep him on the practice squad all of 2022, but the fact that they were struggling to fill the right guard spot and he never got a shot at it, is a bit discouraging.
Brad Cecil. A UDFA rookie out of South Florida, Cecil has 50 college starts under his belt and was the anchor of an offensive line that produced back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers. An injury in the spring limited his opportunities, so he’ll need to get healthy quickly if he wants a chance to compete.
The offensive tackle battleground
The Lions like to lean on their offensive tackle group when they go to six offensive lineman sets, making this battleground an important one in order to keep that option consistently available in the playbook.
Like on the interior, the Lions have six reserves likely battling for one or two spots on the active roster and another spot on the practice squad. So let's look at the competitors.
Matt Nelson. The incumbent for the sixth offensive lineman role, Nelson is an underrated athlete with 40 games of NFL experience, but his hold on the job may not be as strong as it appears. Nelson was injured six games last year and his play has been increasingly inconsistent (his PFF grade has declined each of the last three seasons), which may open the door for other players. To his credit, Nelson has not been content to just sit tight in his role and was working on expanding his game in the spring, taking reps at guard and tackle.
Germain Ifedi. A former first-round pick, Ifedi has played in 102 NFL games, including 83 starts at tackle and guard, but he is on his fourth team in the last five seasons and only played eight snaps in 2022. Ifeadi took snaps at right tackle in the spring, and despite not playing much recently, he could be a valuable depth option because of his size, skill set, and experience.
Obinna Eze. Highly gifted but raw, Eze was clearly not ready for the NFL last season. After a year on the Lions practice squad, Eze was taking reps at tackle and guard, looking fluid in his movements. We haven’t seen him in pads in over a year, so how much he has developed is still unknown, making him one of the more interesting players to keep an eye on this fall.
Connor Galvin. A five-year, 50-game starter at left tackle in college, Galvin has solid movement skills due to Baylor's wide-zone blocking scheme. At 6-foot-6 1/2, a switch to guard isn’t out of the question but he’s still in the acclimation process at this time.
Ryan Swoboda. A towering right tackle (6-foot-9 1/2), Swoboda is easy to spot on the practice field. He only took reps on the right side for the Lions in the spring, but during the college NFLPA game, those coaches used him at left tackle to show his versatility.
Max Pircher. After two years with the Rams in the NFL’s international program, Pircher gets a third season to gain experience and try to earn a spot on an NFL roster. During camp, he will not count against the Lions' 90-man roster, and if he falls short of the 53-man roster, they can keep him on the practice squad also without using a spot, so expect him to stick around regardless of his role.
Erik: Of the nine projected roster spots available for the offensive line, the first six look solid to me: Decker, Jackson, Ragnow, Vaitai, Sewell, and Glasgow. I also believe Sorsdal has a leg up to make the roster due to his upside, and until someone knocks Nelson off his spot, he is likely OT3/6th OL. So that brings the roster up to eight guys for me—leaving one spot open for the remaining 10 players.
So Jeremy, do you disagree with my top-8? And then follow up, do you have a favorite for the projected final spot?
Jeremy: I certainly agree in the top seven, and would even consider them locks for the roster. Nelson probably enters camp as OT3, but I think Eze and Ifedi have legitimate shots and winning that spot.
Maybe one of those guys becomes OL9, but I’d probably give the early nod to Pierschbacher since he was repping high in the spring and brings positional versatility.
Erik: I agree that Pierschbacher has a higher ceiling than Ifedi, and is probably more ready to play than Eze, but I worry about him being squeezed out because of roster construction. Basically, the Lions already have two interior options claimed by Glasgow and Sorsdal—which we both agree are likely locks for the roster—so I’m not sure how much Detroit will value IOL6 vs. OT4. Because of that, my early lean is likely between Eze and Ifedi for OL9/OT4.
That being said, the Lions often simply keep the most talented player, so Pierschbacher vs. Eze vs. Ifedi will likely be the trio to watch.