Penei Sewell is preparing to make his NFL debut at left tackle Sunday, though the Detroit Lions’ first-round pick did his part to head off any controversy about where his long-term future lies.
Sewell said Friday he has worked primarily at left tackle in practice the past two days, since Taylor Decker suffered a finger injury that will keep him out of Sunday’s season-opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
A left tackle at Oregon, Sewell played exclusively right tackle in the preseason.
Decker, the Lions’ starting left tackle since 2016, has said he is not interested in changing positions at this point in his career, and Sewell said, regardless of what happens against the 49ers, Decker won’t have to.
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“I’m definitely right tackle (when Decker comes back),” Sewell said. “I look up to him, he’s like a role model to me and that’s that.”
And what if Sewell excels at left tackle, for however long he mans the position?
“It don’t matter,” Sewell said.
The Lions officially ruled Decker out Friday, but have not named his replacement. Lions coach Dan Campbell said he still is considering three different configurations for his line:
• Sewell could move from right to left tackle, with swing lineman Matt Nelson taking over at right tackle. Nelson played right tackle in his only career start, a late-season loss to the Green Bay Packers last year.
• Nelson, a converted defensive end, could replace Decker at left tackle, leaving the other four positions intact.
• Or right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai could move to left tackle, with Logan Stenberg filling in at guard and Sewell staying at right tackle. Vaitai was expected to play right tackle when he joined the Lions as a free agent last spring but suffered through an injury-riddled first season in Detroit. He has more NFL experience at left tackle than Sewell or Nelson, having started half the 2017 season at the position for the Philadelphia Eagles, including the team’s Super Bowl.
“Yesterday we started thinking about this and luckily we’ve got a lot of flexibility,” Campbell said. “We’ve got some options we’re going to play with.”
Playing Sewell at left tackle seems like the most likely of those options, though the Lions are weighing whether a switch back to the left side would hinder the progress he has made at his new position.
Sewell, who opted out of the 2020 season during the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled at times this preseason in pass protection, but coaches have said he has steadily grown into his new role
“If that’s where we ended up going with it, that’s what he did play in college and it’s something that he’s comfortable with,” Campbell said. “But he’s also getting pretty comfortable at right, so that’s what we’re going to need to – it’s that fine balance between who do you feel like is best to move to the left side versus he’s a rookie and he’s getting better on the right side and let’s keep him there knowing that Decker will be back in a little bit. So that’s kind of the balance that we’re playing with.”
However the Lions slot their offensive line, they figure to be challenged by a 49ers pass rush that ranks among the best in the NFL.
Nick Bosa, who plays primarily at right defensive end, where he aligns against opposing left tackles, had nine sacks and was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, but missed most of last season with a knee injury. Left defensive end Arik Armstead has 22.5 career sacks, and Dee Ford has two double-digit sack seasons in his seven-year career but missed most of last season with injury.
Sewell said he will be prepared for the 49ers’ pass rush no matter what position he plays.
“Wherever I’m at, that’s where I’m at and just know that I’m going to give it all my heart and all my passion out there,” he said.
The Lions listed four players as questionable on their Friday injury report: Defensive lineman Michael Brockers, Levi Onwuzurike and Nick Williams, and cornerback A.J. Parker. Parker, Brockers and Williams are projected starters. Each was limited in practice Friday, though Campbell said Brockers would play earlier this week.