For all of the missteps made by former Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn, one aspect of his roster construction he certainly got more right than wrong was drafting offensive linemen.
His first selection was left tackle Taylor Decker in 2016, and he grabbed interior offensive lineman Graham Glasgow two rounds later that same draft. In 2018, Quinn selected center Frank Ragnow in the first round and nabbed swing tackle Tyrell Crosby in the fifth. Last year, Quinn made one of the best value picks of his tenure when he drafted guard Jonah Jackson in the third round.
Now, for all the resources he put into building the offensive line through the draft, he never could get it quite right. He signed a broken down T.J. Lang, made Rick Wagner the highest-paid right tackle of all-time at the time, and chose to hand over a five-year, $45 million contract to Halapoulivaati Vaitai instead of re-signing Graham Glasgow last offseason.
Brad Holmes inherits an offensive line in decent shape, especially on that left side with Decker and Jackson manning the tackle and guard positions respectively. Ragnow has steadily improved in each season and looks primed to be an All-Pro center at some point soon.
The big question mark that remains with Detroit’s offensive front is on the right side. Vaitai looks like he’s taking his tackle contract from a year ago and moving inside to guard which leaves the Lions with Crosby as the team’s current starting right tackle for the moment.
Should a very plausible draft-day scenario play itself out, Holmes will have an opportunity to make Detroit’s offensive line one of the better units in the NFL by selecting Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater with the No. 7 overall pick.
To cut straight to the point, Rashawn Slater is going to be a mainstay along someone’s offensive line for years to come because of tape like this:
Enjoyed watching former Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater. I think he’s a tackle. The 2019 game vs. Ohio State sold me on that. He handled Chase Young well. There will be some teams that grade him as an IOL though. pic.twitter.com/ZiNIND40uX
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) November 5, 2020
For Slater, his athleticism plus his football IQ is what makes him such an alluring prospect. He possesses incredible processing speed when it comes to picking up stunts and blitzes. In the run game, Slater gets out of his stance in a hurry and puts his natural athleticism to use, making blocks on the move efficiently and effectively at the second level.
What makes Rashawn Slater — @rdsl8r — special is his ability to get to the second level & win w/ athleticism
Here is a perfect example of how he can immediately improve an offense
— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) April 12, 2021
Technically speaking, Slater is as solid as they come with great footwork and technique. When you put it all together as he has, your production speaks for itself: Slater allowed only five pressures in 2019 en route to earning a 90.0 overall grade across 355 pass-blocking snaps per Pro Football Focus.
If you’ve done a cursory study of Slater, you’ve no doubt read about the chance of him moving inside to guard in the NFL because of his size. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Slater is a bit smaller than your average tackle in the NFL, but his outrageous athletic profile and tape against a player like Chase Young should earn him the shot to play tackle at the next level. If worst comes to worst, Slater moves inside to guard where he tested out as the fifth-best guard prospect from an athletic standpoint since 1987.
So if the worst-case scenario does come to fruition, the question then becomes this: is it worth spending a pick in the top 10 on a guard? Since the 2010 NFL Draft, only three guards have been selected in the top 10—Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack in 2013 and Quenton Nelson in 2018—and Nelson is the only prospect who has really lived up to those expectations that come with being so highly drafted. I think Slater’s worth the “risk” in this sense because of his traits, versatility, and production against top-tier talent.
In more than 80 pass-blocking snaps against Chase Young, Zack Baun, AJ Epenesa and Kenny Willekes in 2019, Rashawn Slater allowed two pressures (Baun + Epenesa).
that’s pretty nuts
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) January 11, 2021
Why not Sewell?
Plenty of people have their minds made up that Oregon’s Penei Sewell is the top offensive line talent in the draft, and they could be right. He naturally plays left tackle—the premium position on the offensive line—and in his two years with the Ducks, Sewell dominated Pac 12 competition. His floor is high, but without seeing him lined up against top-tier talent and given limited opportunities for one-on-one situations against pass rushers because of Oregon’s screen-heavy offense, there are question marks about his ceiling.
Sewell could justifiably be the first offensive lineman off the board when the Cincinnati Bengals are picking at No. 5 and want to protect their franchise quarterback Joe Burrow after he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in his rookie season. But if he slips past Cincy, chances are the Miami Dolphins, after drafting both Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt in the first and second rounds respectively in 2020, are looking to upgrade elsewhere on their roster and this would leave Detroit at No. 7 with their choice of Sewell or Slater.
If the draft board happens to fall that way, I’d still be on board with the Lions choosing Slater over Sewell for a couple of reasons.
For starters, the Lions are set at left tackle for the foreseeable future with Taylor Decker. The team gave him a four-year, $60 million contract extension at the start of the 2020 season and that will keep him in Detroit through at least the 2023 season.
As a true freshman, Slater started at right tackle for the Wildcats and played there until 2019, his junior season, when he made the switch to left tackle and solidified himself as a first-round prospect with his stellar play.
Sewell, on the other hand, only spent time at left tackle at Oregon, which does give me pause for how his game would translate immediately at right tackle for the Lions. We hear how difficult it can be for offensive linemen to switch sides, but Josh Sitton—the former, four-time Pro Bowl guard for the Green Bay Packers—puts it into understandable terms for those of us without offensive line experience:
Josh Sitton just said playing RG instead of familiar LG is like “trying to wipe your ass with the other hand.”
— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) March 16, 2018
It’s not as if Sewell hasn’t ever played a position other than left tackle. According to Dane Brugler’s 2021 NFL Draft guide, “The Beast”, he did spend time at right tackle in high school, but a 6-foot-5, 330-pound guy with his football IQ is going to look good anywhere on the offensive line against high school competition. And this isn’t to say Sewell can’t make that transition, he very well could, but for a team like the Lions, drafting a guy with the expectations of starting him out of position on day one doesn’t seem ideal.
The Bottom Line with Slater
For a team without a long-term identity in place, Holmes is being praised for his approach to the offseason. From the trade of Matthew Stafford to the signings he’s made in free agency, it’s a clear sign that Holmes is playing the long game when it comes to this rebuild. Detroit can go a number of ways with their No. 7 pick since there isn’t a long-term plan in place at a variety of positions, but one group that’s close is the offensive line, and that’s a great place for any team to start.
Whether the Lions view Slater as a guard or a tackle, he’d be an immediate starter at either position on the right side of the line and it doesn’t require any projection. I keep coming back to his athleticism, but what Slater has there in combination with his experience at Northwestern makes him capable of playing guard or tackle on either side of the line, and he’s going to do it at a very high level for many years.