When the Detroit Lions added offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai a year ago, they praised his versatility. But make no mistake about it, he was penciled in as the team’s starting right tackle the moment he signed the five-year, $45-million contract.
Everything pointed that direction, from the money to where he’d had most of his early-career success as a member the Philadelphia Eagles. And it was quickly confirmed when he took nearly every rep at that position during training camp.
But a foot injury suffered before the season, which lingered throughout the campaign, altered the Lions’ plans for their biggest free-agent addition. The combination of limited mobility, as well as the impressive performance of Tyrell Crosby in his stead, led to the Lions using Vaitai at guard more than tackle in 2020.
And while new coach Dan Campbell isn’t making any guarantees ahead of seeing his players on the practice field, the current vision is keeping Vaitai inside to start next season.
“It’s hard to just put that in stone, but I will say this — and we’ve talked to him about it, we’re a little intrigued about moving him inside to guard,” Campbell said. “You know, that does intrigue us. We may, as a starting point, kind of work there and see where we’re at. We’ve got enough guys on this roster to where between he and Crosby and (Matt) Nelson, and you kind of let them fight it out a little bit, just see what comes out and who fits best where.”
Initially, Vaitai struggled at guard last season, but seemed to get into a groove down the stretch. Analytics site Pro Football Focus gave him a positive grade for five of his final six performances at the position, until a late-season injury to Crosby forced Vaitai to move back to tackle the final three games.
If Vaitai does make the permanent move to guard, it could mean the Lions begin the season with the same starting five they played with the majority of last season. That’s some unusual continuity for a roster that’s going through significant changes just about everywhere else.
That said, there’s still the draft, where the Lions could have an opportunity to further upgrade the unit in the first round, which something Campbell acknowledged.
Assuming the Lions stick with their No. 7 choice in the first round, the team should have the opportunity to draft either Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, who are viewed as the best offensive linemen in this class.
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