Allen Park — Taylor Decker’s welcome-to-the-NFL moment came in the first quarter of his first preseason game.
At that point, Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher James Harrison was well past his prime. He was 38, entering his 14th season and was five years removed from his last of five Pro Bowl appearances. But that didn’t stop him from handing Decker his lunch, bending around the outside edge for a strip-sack on then-Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Years later, that experience as a first-round draft pick being counted on to start from Day 1, and the wisdom that was developed through it, is something Decker can impart on teammate Penei Sewell, who is following the same path.
“I think the big thing as a young player is not letting the name on the back of the jersey beat you,” Decker said when asked for the biggest piece of advice he can offer Sewell. “Whoever you’re playing against, don’t let the name on the back of the jersey beat you, because you have still go out there and they still have to beat you. You do you. I’m going to do my (stuff), what I’m good at, and that player has to beat me.
“That’s a huge thing for a young player at any position because you might be playing against guys you watched when you were in the fifth grade, like I did my rookie year. There were a lot of guys when I was young — Julius Peppers was one. We played the Packers twice, and that guy was drafted in like 2001 or 2002. I’ve seen this guy, I know about this guy. James Harrison, versus the Steelers. I watched this guy growing up. Don’t let that beat you, because obviously you’re a big boy now and you belong in this league.”
Sewell, who doesn’t even celebrate his 21st birthday for another two months, will undoubtedly face some of those players he watched or played with on Madden growing up, like Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Brandon Graham, who are all on the 2021 slate.
And while the regular season might be weeks away, Detroit opens the preseason next Friday, Aug. 13 against the Buffalo Bills. That’s just 10 days after the team’s first padded practice on Tuesday.
For Sewell, it’s the first time he’s put on pads in a competitive setting in more than a year after opting out of the 2020 season at Oregon.
“Man, it’s kind of like when you’re out in the desert and you take that first sip of water,” he said. “I would say it’s like that to be out there again, to strap it on, to put the helmet back on again. It’s a feeling that I forgot about and something that I’ve been craving for a minute that I didn’t know I was craving, to be able to go out there and do the thing that I love doing.”
Words are one thing, but Sewell’s actions sufficiently demonstrate his passion for contact. Early in the practice while running a half-line drill, he blasted second-year defensive end Julian Okwara and unleased a scream of satisfaction.
“I don’t like to speak about anything, but yeah, I’ll bring the juice,” Sewell said. “That’s just who I am. Leave it at that. More juice, all that. You will see and feel me out there.”
The Lions are counting on that. It’s why they selected him with the No. 7 pick in the draft, making him the first offensive lineman off the board.
With Decker locked in at left tackle, Sewell is being asked to transition to the right side of the offensive line. During the early stages of the offseason program, he acknowledged the move hadn’t been easy, comparing it to learning to write with the opposite hand.
But asked for an update on his progression, Sewell no longer sounded uncomfortable with the assignment.
“It’s been good,” he said. “I’m a right tackle now so I just enjoy every snap. Enjoy every learning curve, because it’s gonna be battles. I’m in the league now. I’m here with the big boys, so I just gotta know that everything happens for a reason.”
At the head of the list of big boys is Romeo Okwara, who led the Lions with 10 sacks a year ago. Lions coach Dan Campbell sees those head-to-head matchups as the key to Sewell’s rapid development.
“The best thing for him is going to be Romeo Okwara,” Campbell said. “That actually gives me hope because I know Romeo is going to give him a full day’s work every day, walkthrough to the finish of practice, start to end. He’s going to get somebody that’s got length and a motor. He’s crafty, knows how to use his skills. He’s going to force this guy to get better fast.”
Sewell acknowledged that Okwara is “putting me through the ringer,” while also calling the daily battles a blessing.
“From little technique, to mentally how you approach it and when each and every time,” Sewell said. “He’s really good with his hands and that’s something I’ve been trying to focus through on this break off. Man, he’s giving me a run for my money right now, so I just gotta go back on the drawing board and watch some more film. Again, just go back to studying and studying and studying, because that’s all I can do, and come out and give my all against him.”
Campbell knows Sewell is going to run into his James Harrison moments when he gets beat and beat badly. It happens to every player, especially rookies. But Detroit’s first-round pick is off to an encouraging start and the Lions are doing everything they can to build up his confidence before the real games start.
“He’s here because he’s supposed to be here, he belongs here,” Decker said. “So, playing with that confidence. I know he’s young, he’s very young, but he’s picking up the playbook quickly, learns well. He’s confident, obviously he’s physically gifted. I think he’s doing just fine.”