Anyone who watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emphatically beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV just over a week ago likely understood the importance of having a deep offensive line in the NFL. As the Detroit Lions’ loaded offseason inches closer to free agency and the draft, they too would be wise to learn that game’s most valuable lesson.
With both of his starting offensive tackles sidelined with injuries, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was under intense pressure from the Buccaneers’ pass rush for much of the game, and he was never able to get the offense on track. Mahomes is well known for his creativity and elusiveness once his protection breaks down, but missing his two bookends in the season’s finale was too for him much to overcome.
On the other hand, for the Buccaneers, legendary quarterback Tom Brady was kept clean by his offensive front, led by two quality starting tackles. Both of those players were acquired with high draft picks, with left tackle Donovan Smith selected 34th overall in 2015 and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs going 13th overall just last April. Needless to say, both moves paid off.
Despite a rough 2020 season that prompted an avalanche of organizational changes – including a new general manager, coaching staff, and starting quarterback – the Lions, like the Buccaneers, would seem to be in pretty good shape along their offensive line. This, despite the unit being a weak point not too long ago.
With salary cap constraints, just six draft picks this April, and holes to fill up and down the roster, should the Lions pay too much attention to the offensive line when more important personnel decisions need to be made in the coming months? Yes, they should.
If this year’s Super Bowl wasn’t proof enough, one could look at the Lions’ offensive front itself. They have three good starters in left tackle Taylor Decker, guard Jonah Jackson (who played 97% of the Lions’ offensive snaps as a rookie last year), and Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow. But there are question marks after that trio.
After signing a lucrative free-agent contract last offseason, Halapoulivaati Vaitai had a disappointing first season in Detroit, shuttling between right tackle and guard and missing six games with injuries. Veteran Joe Dahl’s versatility is beneficial, but he has also had trouble staying healthy; he has played in just 32 games over the last three seasons.
Throw in good-but-not-great swing tackle Tyrel Crosby (who’s in a contract year), and converted defensive end Matt Nelson, and the Lions’ need for some more talent at tackle becomes a little clearer. It’s also possible that Vaitai makes a full-time switch to guard due to his struggles at tackle. His contract signals that he’ll get a shot somewhere on the line in 2021.
Also, new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, while generally effusive in his praise of the Lions’ offensive roster in a recent press conference with local media members, did remark that they could use a little more depth at tackle. The draft is typically the best way to build sustainable, cost-effective depth at a premium position like offensive tackle, and this is a great year to address it.
The Lions seem doubtful to select a tackle with their first-round pick, but don’t discount them doing so early on Day 2. Though this class’ best tackles will likely be gone by the time the Lions are on the clock for the second and third time, there could be some very good second-tier options.
Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz, Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown, and Cincinnati’s James Hudson could all fall in that range and would make a lot of sense for the Lions. While most of them won’t necessarily be ready for serious playing time in year one, they likely wouldn’t need to be right away thanks to the experienced players ahead of them.
Eichenberg, Radunz, and Hudson are also three of the whopping nine offensive tackles on NFL.com draft expert Daniel Jeremiah’s latest Top-50 prospect list. It’s an incredibly deep crew, and the Lions should take advantage of it.
It’s also possible that the Lions look elsewhere with their early draft picks, or they could once again throw some money at a free agent tackle, despite the meager returns from Vaitai in year one. However, the importance of reliable offensive tackles was on full display on football’s biggest stage this year, and that the Lions should take notice of that as they continue to reshape their team.