Detroit Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2021 NFL draft. This is the second in an eight-part series.
The strength of the Lions’ offense right now is their line, but that does not mean they are set at the position group entering the draft.
Frank Ragnow is coming off a Pro Bowl season at center and is due a contract extension in the near future, and Taylor Decker had his best season at left tackle in 2020 and starts his four-year extension this fall. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai in Year 2 of a big free agent deal and Tyrell Crosby in the final season of his rookie contract, the Lions could use another cost-controlled young starter to go with promising second-year guard Jonah Jackson.
Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn noted the Lions’ lack of depth at tackle before the start of free agency, and the organization has not made a single addition at the position this offseason. Matt Nelson fared well in spot duty as a swing tackle last season, but the rest of the Lions’ reserves have shown little to be excited about.
This is a deep draft at offensive tackle, so the Lions do not have to address the position in Round 1. But if they stay at pick No. 7 in the first round, they could have their choice of the draft’s top two tackles in Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater — and that could be too tempting for a young, building team to pass up.
On the roster: OT — Taylor Decker, Tyrell Crosby, Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper. Interior offensive lineman — Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg.
Top 3 OT prospects: 1. Penei Sewell, Oregon; 2. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern; 3. Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech.
Top 3 IOL prospects: 1. Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC; 2. Landon Dickerson, Alabama; 3. Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State.
Other players with Michigan ties: OT — Jalen Mayfield, Michigan; James Hudson, Cincinnati (attended Michigan). IOL — Alaric Jackson, Iowa (from Detroit); Jaylon Moore, Western Michigan.
Day 3 sleeper: OT — Spencer Brown, Northern Iowa. IOL — Drew Dahlman, Stanford.
Recent Lions draft picks at OL: 2020, Jonah Jackson (3rd round), Logan Stenberg (4th round); 2019, none; 2018 Frank Ragnow (1st round), Tyrell Crosby (5th round); 2017, none; 2016, Taylor Decker (1st round), Graham Glasgow (3rd round), Joe Dahl (5th round).
Sewell and Slater are two of the 10 best prospects in this year’s draft, regardless of position, and part of a deep tackle class that should produce first-year starters well into the second round. Sewell played two dominant seasons at Oregon before opting out of games last fall. He was overpowering as a left tackle, and has star potential at just 20 years old. Slater is another opt-out from last season. He played two years at right tackle before moving to the left side as a junior, when he shined in a matchup against last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young.
Slater and Sewell both have arms shorter than 34 inches, which could be an issue for some teams, but it’s unlikely either lasts past Pick No. 14.
Vera-Tucker moved to left tackle last season after starting his college career at guard, but may switch back inside in the NFL because of his shorter arms (32 1/8 inches). As many as six other tackles could go in the second half of Round 1 or early on Day 2, including Darrisaw, Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins and Mayfield, who missed time with a high ankle sprain last season and remains a bit of a project with just 15 career starts.
There is less top-end talent in the interior line class, as Vera-Tucker might be the only first-round guard.
Dickerson suffered three season-ending injuries at Florida State, including a torn right ACL as a freshman, then tore his left ACL at Alabama last year. He is the draft’s top center, but probably goes on Day 2 because of health concerns. Radunz played as Trey Lance’s blindside protector at North Dakota State and had a strong Senior Bowl, but like Vera-Tucker might be best suited for guard.
Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood is another interior lineman who should come off the board on Day 2, while Jackson, Moore and Hudson might have to wait until Saturday to hear their name called.