Detroit Lions offensive line ‘can be as good as we want to be’ after Penei Sewell addition

Detroit Free Press

Hank Fraley was ready to head home to Minnesota to see his family during UCLA’s early-October bye in 2017 when he made an abrupt change of plans to visit one of the top high school offensive linemen in the country, Utah prep star Penei Sewell.

Fraley, then an assistant at UCLA, made a lasting impression on Sewell that day as one of the few coaches who traveled to Sewell’s out-of-the-way high school to see him play.

“I knew he was different because he was one of the few that did that,” Sewell said earlier this month.

And while Sewell ultimately spurned Fraley and the Bruins to sign with Oregon, he made a lasting impression on Fraley that day, too.

[ Penei Sewell’s rookie contract is done. Here’s what comes next for the Lions’ top pick ]

“I would say most people that got to see Penei in high school thought he was going to be a great talent for them in college,” said Fraley, the Detroit Lions’ second-year offensive line coach. “There is some kids out there, young men, that you go watch sometimes in high school and you go, ‘If everything pans out and everything stays on track, they can be a really good player.’ And he’s put the time and effort and the work into it. We’ll see what the future holds.”

Fraley and Sewell finally will join forces this season after the Lions made Sewell the No. 7 pick in this year’s NFL draft.

Projected to start at right tackle this fall, Sewell is the biggest reason to believe that the Lions already-good offensive line can make the leap to great in the not-too-distant future.

Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow just signed a four-year extension that made him the highest-paid center in NFL history. Left tackle Taylor Decker is coming off his best season as a pro and under contract through 2024. Jonah Jackson had a standout rookie season while playing both guard spots last fall.

And guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and now-swing tackle Tyrell Crosby give the Lions one of the highest-upside six-man units in the league, with members who are all 27 years or younger.

“We have a chance,” Fraley said. “We can be as good as we want to be with the work we put into it. I know the young man we did add, Penei, there’s a lot of expectations for him. … He should help us out. He’s just another piece to the puzzle and like I said, we’re all in there, we’re all trying to row in the right direction, trying to work hard and get each other better.”

Historically, teams with elite offensive lines have been some of the most consistent winners in the NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs, last year’s Super Bowl teams, both finished in the top eight in sack percentage and yards per carry. The Chiefs had what was regarded as the best line in football when they won the Super Bowl a year ago. And the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys are among other teams that have rode strong lines to sustained success.

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The Lions are no locks to have a dominant front this fall. Sewell has never played right tackle, Vaitai is coming off a down season in his first year as a full-time starter, and the Lions are shopping Crosby but in no rush to deal him three months before the season.

Sewell also has not played a meaningful down of football in more than 16 months after opting out of last season, and he missed last week’s rookie minicamp after contracting COVID-19.

Fraley said he expects Sewell to pick up this fall where he left off as a sophomore at Oregon, when he won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best lineman.

“I would look at it no different than somebody getting injured and have to get back,” Fraley said. “He’s not rehabbing anything, but just getting back in the swing of things. It’s knocking the rust (off). And all of us in the offseason, when you get back it’s just like knocking the rust off just getting out of your stance, your hand placement. So I see him picking up pretty quickly.”

Already, Fraley said Sewell has been “great” in Zoom meetings, asking intelligent questions and showing high football IQ.

Sewell is expected to join his veteran teammates on the field for organized team activities next week, though the real test of his potential will come when pads come at training camp this summer.

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As a veteran center for the Cleveland Browns in 2007, Fraley played with rookie tackle Joe Thomas at the start of his soon-to-be Hall-of-Fame career. He said Thomas impressed immediately in OTAs and continued on the same track in training camp, which is when he and others realized, “He’s got a chance to become really good.”

Sewell has “a chance to be special,” Fraley said, but like the Lions’ line as a whole, he has to prove it on the field.

“I just know this: You don’t put any expectations on yourself,” Fraley said. “It’s like being recruited in college. Those five-star recruit, four-star, three stars, all the stars are wiped out. You get drafted here, it doesn’t matter first round, second round, free agent, you’re here and you’ve got to prove it. And the best way to prove it is go out there and do your work and be consistently good. Just put the work out there and everything will pay off and at the end.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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