Each year, it seems there is at least one Detroit Lions player that outperforms expectations. Whether it be because of an injury, sudden development, or simply poor expectations on our part, it’s always nice to see individuals make a name for themselves seemingly overnight.
Last year, that player was undoubtedly Romeo Okwara. Many, myself included, had written him off after a 1.5 sack season in 2019, thinking he was going to be a rotational player for the rest of his career. Instead, he exploded for a 10-sack season despite playing on a defense that didn’t have many other players taking attention away from him. Whether he’ll be able to continue to perform at that level is a topic up for debate—and one we tackled earlier in the week—but who will be the next “Romeo Okwara” this year?
Today’s Question of the Day is:
Which Lions player could be the biggest surprise in 2021?
My answer: This question was inspired by ESPN’s post on the biggest minicamp surprise from each team. Lions reporter Eric Woodyard picked linebacker Jahlani Tavai, but I’m not quite ready to buy into that hype. Weight loss is one thing. Transforming your game is another.
I also feel like Jared Goff could be a popular answer right now, considering how low people are both nationally and locally on the former first-round pick. I think he’d be a solid answer here, but given his lackluster receiving corps right now, I’m going to pass on him as well.
Instead, I am going with Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The offensive lineman was bad last year, there are no ways around it. But he also had everything going against him. He went into the shortened offseason practicing at tackle. He quickly suffered a foot injury that would linger for the entire season. And then when the season started, he was shifted into the right guard position.
Now, Vaitai has had the entire offseason to train and prepare where he’ll almost certainly start in Week 1. He’ll also have an All Pro center on one side of him and the eighth overall pick on the other side. He’s always been a better run blocker than pass protector, which makes him a better fit inside. That skillset will also likely be exactly what offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn is looking for in his guards. To put bluntly, he’s perfectly set up for success this year.
Will he ever live up to the enormous contract the previous regime handed to him? Probably not. But don’t expect Vaitai to be a complete bust this year. And if he can put it together this year, that offensive line will be a force for years to come.