The NFL Draft has a significant impact on the lives of those players fortunate to be selected. The draft can also play an important role in the future of a front office, especially for a rookie general manager. However, perhaps the people most affected by the draft are the team’s players themselves. While this can be a positive for some, the NFL Draft can mean that some players are suddenly relegated to backup duties—or on the roster bubble.
We have already taken a look at some players that stand to benefit from the 2021 NFL Draft, but it is worth looking at those players negatively affected by the selections made by the Detroit Lions.
How does Jahlani Tavai fit into the Detroit Lions defense? That will be a question for fans, media, and coaches to ponder for the upcoming months. The selection of Derrick Barnes all but reiterated a philosophical change on defense: speed. Tavai was very much a fit for Matt Patricia’s defense, but it remains to be seen how he will transition to the new Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn-led defense.
Tavai has the benefit of being fairly unique on the roster, with few players having the same skill set as a big run-defending linebacker, but whether this is a positive or a sign he has become obsolete is a matter of debate. Some have speculated that Tavai could be moved into an edge role, but Barnes’s experience as a pass rusher also makes this move redundant. For now, Tavai is on the outside looking in.
The Lions saw fit to draft two defensive tackles on Day 2, and Da’Shawn Hand could be a victim of the numbers game alone. The player having the biggest impact on Hand’s roster spot is Levi Onwuzurike, given their similar play styles. Hand and Onwuzurike are tweener defensive tackles—both come in at 6-foot-3 and approximately 290 pounds—with a knack for disrupting the pocket as 3- and 5-techniques.
While Hand had an excellent rookie season in 2018, he has been unable to put together a full campaign due to a multitude of injuries. There is potential for a rebound, but it appears as though the new coaching staff has found their own version of Hand. Can the two coexist, or does Onwuzurike render Hand expendable?
Much like Hand, John Penisini is a victim of the early run on defensive tackles. Unlike Hand, however, Penisini’s job is in greater jeopardy. The nose tackle position is not universal across the NFL, and even teams that do carry the position often carry a single player. The reason? Nose tackles generally aren’t three-down defenders, and in today’s passing-orientated NFL, having a pure run stuffer might not be valuable, let alone keeping two.
Penisini falls into that category. He does not offer much as a pass rusher, with his strength coming in the run game. The Lions drafted an explosive nose tackle in Alim McNeill, who is not only a great run defender but also has some explosiveness as a pass rusher. Penisini will have to showcase elite run defense or an improved pass rush, or he could be relegated from a starting role. Add in Onwuzurike’s experience at nose tackle in college, and Penisini might not be a lock for the roster at all.
The Lions replaced one Oregon Duck at right tackle with another. The selection of highly-touted tackle Penei Sewell pushes Tyrell Crosby back into a swing tackle role. While he has had success as the third tackle, I would wager that he was hoping for a starting spot in 2021, given his expiring contract. Although some projected him as a guard coming out of college, Crosby has been entrenched at tackle for his entire NFL career. There is a possibility that he finally gets moved inside, but that will likely happen to Halapoulivaati Vaitai instead. He should be in no danger of getting cut, but his long-term prospects with the team look limited.
Drafting Penei Sewell has a ripple effect across the interior of the offensive line as well. Halapoulivaati Vaitai was a prized free agent signing, meant to replace Rick Wagner at right tackle. Instead, injuries facilitated sliding him inside, with Tyrell Crosby taking the right tackle position. Adding Sewell to the roster not only relegates Crosby to a backup role but also dictates a permanent move inside for Vaitai. The loser in all of this? Logan Stenberg.
The Lions selected guard Jonah Jackson in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he enjoyed some success as a starter. The Lions’ very next pick, however, hardly saw the field as a rookie. Stenberg was projected to be a developmental guard for the team, and there was optimism he and Jackson could form a formidable one-two punch at guard. With Vaitai at guard instead, the future for Stenberg is unclear. Can he win a starting role in 2021 or 2022 over Vaitai and his expensive contract? If not, Stenberg will be in a similar role to Joe Dahl as the top backup along the interior. He likely makes the roster, but I think some were hoping for more than a backup out of a fourth-round pick.