It is one of the most difficult things to find in the NFL — offensive line depth — and now that the Detroit Lions have it, they seem reluctant to let it go.
When the Lions open organized team activities on Tuesday, they will do so with essentially six starters on their offensive line.
Frank Ragnow is coming off a Pro Bowl season at center. Taylor Decker is entering his sixth season as the Lions’ starting left tackle. Jonah Jackson played well as a rookie at left guard. And first-round pick Penei Sewell will make his on-field debut at right tackle after missing rookie minicamp with COVID-19.
Two more linemen, Tyrell Crosby and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, started at least 10 games for the Lions last season and how the team handles their immediate futures will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the next few months.
Vaitai is penciled in as the Lions’ starting right guard, and Crosby as the team’s swing tackle, but Crosby is a viable trade candidate (for the right price) and Vaitai is seen as the weak link on a unit that has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL.
The Lions might prefer to keep Crosby as insurance at both tackle and both guard spots, though trading him in a contract year could hasten their rebuild. And on a unit that truly is only as strong as its fifth starter, Vaitai’s play will be key to the entire offense.
“Expectations in our room are high and when you come to work and you know what to expect, it’s always a good feeling,” offensive line coach Hank Fraley said last week. “I’m looking forward to working with these guys eventually, truly working with these guys on the field.”
Vaitai had a disappointing first season with the Lions, suffering a foot injury in training camp that hampered his play much of the year.
Fraley said he still views Vaitai as a part of the Lions’ long-term future, though Vaitai’s contract — which includes no guaranteed money the next three seasons — likely makes this a make-or-break year.
“That guy can do a lot of things that a lot of people in this league can’t,” Fraley said. “He’s athletic, he’s big. (To) move the line of scrimmage in this league is hard to do. You can pull him. He can anchor in pass protection. I’m excited for him. He’s played a lot of ball and he played a lot of ball in Philadelphia and he was the starting left tackle when they won the Super Bowl. He’s played a lot of ball, he’s experienced and why couldn’t he be part of this piece of the puzzle?”
Crosby proved a capable starter at right tackle last season, assuming the job after Vaitai’s August injury, and the Lions had planned to enter this fall with him at right tackle until Sewell fell in their lap on draft day.
Sewell is considered one of the highest-upside offensive linemen to come out of college in recent years and should be a Day 1 starter for the Lions. But he also is changing positions after playing exclusively left tackle at Oregon and he has to make up for missed time after opting out of the 2020 season.
Those dynamics add to the positionally-versatile Crosby’s value. A former teammate of Sewell’s at Oregon, he is the Lions’ top backup at both guard and tackle sports, and there is a chance the Lions might need him to man his old job early in the year.
“We’re going to try to play the best five,” Fraley insisted. “And to say who’s the starters, all you guys right now are saying Penei, Decker, all those. They all know they’ve got to come in and compete. We can say all this: Crosby’s a great — he can be a great piece to the puzzle for us and he’s seen it. You guys have seen it. He’s proved it. Last year, unfortunately he had to miss the last couple games of the year, but he was playing pretty good. And the guy’s a competitor. He’s always had to compete for everything. Went to Oregon and competed. He got here and competed. And that’s all I’m looking forward to is him coming in and competing.”
The Lions have talked with multiple teams about trading Crosby since the draft, but are not outright shopping him given his value.
Fraley said he had “a conversation” with Crosby about the trade rumors, though he declined to share of the nature of their talk.
For now, it looks like Crosby will be sticking around as a sixth starter, though that, like everything else this time of year, is subject to change.
“I’ve been in some of those shoes,” said Fraley, a starting center for most of his 10 NFL seasons as a player who was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2006 and three years later saw the team draft a center in the first round.
“Trade rumors, not trade rumors, you can only control what you can control and just keep working and everything you do is strap your helmet up and go out there and work. And that’s all you can do, don’t worry about what everybody else is writing about or saying about, let’s just go to work.”
The Lions rounded out their 90-man roster ahead of OTAs, signing offensive tackle Darrin Paulo on Monday. Paulo signed with Lions coach Dan Campbell’s old team, the New Orleans Saints, as an undrafted free agent last spring and spent the 2020 season on the Denver Broncos practice squad.