Mailbag: What should the Detroit Lions do with Penei Sewell, Taylor Decker?

Pride of Detroit

Every so often you get a hot button topic in the mailbag and it deserves a little extra attention. That was the case this week, so in this special mailbag edition, we will focus on just one question surrounding the Detroit Lions.

Erik: Before we get to the question, let me set the table real quick, Jeremy.

Taylor Decker was drafted to play left tackle for the Lions in 2016 (16th overall) and he has started there for 71 games (missing nine due to injury) in the NFL. Just over a year ago, the previous front office gave Decker a six-year, $85 million contract extension, he has over $24 million in guaranteed money remaining and is signed through 2024.

This past draft, the new Lions front office selected Penei Sewell seventh overall. And even though he was an award-winning left tackle at Oregon, with Decker firmly established, the Lions opted to train Sewell at right tackle, something he has been working on for more than five months with the team and longer during his draft prep.

Decker was injured in practice leading up to Week 1 and was placed on injured reserve. Faced with a difficult decision, the Lions staff opted to move Sewell to left tackle during Decker’s absence, and in Week 1, he looked sensational.

Ok, now onto the question on most Lions fans’ minds.

I like this new coaching staff, and the long-term outlook of the team they’re building, however, if they move (Penei) Sewell back to RT when (Taylor) Decker comes back, it would raise a lot of questions in my mind about how they both evaluate and use talent. Do you think the drop-off in play will be that significant if they move Decker to RT instead? — Westbrook Okudah

Jeremy: Had a feeling this question was coming this week, so let’s get into it. I think Taylor Decker’s potential on the right side is a good place to start this conversation because I think in an ideal world Sewell on the left and Decker on the right is probably the best-case scenario… but it has to work, and Decker has to be willing to do it.

Obviously, any prediction about how Decker would do on the right side is a pure guessing game, but here’s what we know. He started at right tackle for the Buckeyes back in 2013, but moved to the left for the final two years of his college career. That means it’s been eight years since he’s played on the right. Many viewed him as a right tackle coming out of college, but the Lions obviously saw things differently, and it has worked out pretty darn well at the left side.

We just got done with months of talking points about how hard it is for Penei Sewell to move from left to right, so I’m a little struck by how many people think Decker can just do the opposite in the middle of the season.

Erik: Additionally, Sewell was playing right tackle in high school from 2014-2017 and his body is taking time to acclimate back to the right side, so for Decker, it’s certainly would be a challenging transition.

Jeremy: With Decker being a veteran player in the NFL, do you think that maybe gives him an advantage to adjust quicker or because it’s almost been a decade since he’s played on the right, does that actually makes it harder?

Erik: From a physical standpoint, I’d compare it to learning a new language: the younger you are the easier it is to learn. But at the same time, being a veteran gives him a unique advantage of knowing what to expect from an NFL EDGE rusher, which could shorten the mental side of a transition.

But that brings us to another question, would Decker even be willing to accept the move?

He’s established himself as a top-15 left tackle in the NFL—a very impressive accomplishment—I’m sure he would be reluctant to cast that aside to basically relearn how to play a position.

Jeremy: It would definitely take a hit to his ego. Say what you want about how left and right tackle are becoming just as important, but there’s no doubt that offensive linemen view left tackle as the king of the offensive line. To Decker, this would undoubtedly be viewed as a demotion.

Erik: Agree, 100 percent.

Jeremy: Decker has been a team player his entire career. He quickly grew to be a captain. You’d like to think he’d take one for the team here, but this is not going to be an easy conversation. This is a guy who, rightfully, views himself as a premier player at a premier position.

“I think I was one of the best tackles in football,” Decker said of his 2020 season.

That being said, he did express some flexibility on his position way back in 2016 during his NFL Combine.

“Of course, I would want to be a left tackle, but at the end of the day I just want to play football and compete,” Decker said. ”So if a team asked me to play another position, absolutely I would.”

That was a long time ago, though. Things change, and now that he’s established himself among the top left tackles in the league, I just don’t know how he’d take to it. He has constantly said he only cares about winning for this city, but it’s hard to know how much pride he’d be willing to swallow to stay true to that.

Erik: Again, agree. I would anticipate that conversation to have a lot of resistance, but as a former captain, it’s possible he’s willing to give it a shot. Maybe.

Jeremy: Earlier I said that in an ideal world, Sewell is on the left, Decker is on the right. Do you agree with that? Is Sewell’s best future at left tackle? Are we jumping the gun based on one very promising performance?

Erik: I think this regime believes Sewell being the team’s future left tackle is definitely the ideal scenario. And I think Sewell has the potential to be a top-five tackle in the NFL (regardless of side) and that’s based on what I’ve seen from his collective young career, including at Oregon, but I’m not married to having him on one side.

At the same time, while I view Decker in high regard, can he reach top-five level? I’m not so sure. And that raises questions about putting your best players in the best spots now and in the long term.

Which player do you see as having the higher ceiling?

Jeremy: Oh, it’s Sewell without a doubt. The question is whether he can reach that ceiling and how quickly it’ll happen. Decker has likely reached his full potential—which is pretty darn good—but I agree that Sewell could be in the top-five conversation… eventually.

It’s undeniable that Sewell looks quicker and more comfortable on the left side, but we should also note that it was far from a perfect performance. He gave up six pressures, and it’s clear he’s better right now as a run blocker than a pass protector. That’s not an ideal place to be for a left tackle, whose primary job is to not get the quarterback killed from his blind side.

I think what I’m trying to say is that Sewell on the left and Decker on the right may be downgrades on both sides compared to where both players started. Right now, Decker is the better left tackle and I think Sewell would probably make the better right tackle. But if the following things are true:

  • Sewell continues to play extremely well at left tackle
  • Decker is open to moving to right tackle
  • Decker seems comfortable at right tackle

…then I think that’s the route you have to go for the team’s future. Those are some big ifs, though.

Erik: Even if those three things happen, it’s still possible that a change may not happen this year. We’ve talked about how challenging it is to switch to the right side, and after five months Sewell is still acclimating. If they made the move now, Decker would be starting at right tackle with basically no reps and coming off an injury—that’s a tall order, and like you said, likely a downgrade at both spots this season.

This has a bit of a Frank Ragnow-Graham Glasgow circa 2018 (Glasgow was a top-12 center that year) feel to it. Let the rookie gain some NFL experience, and if the team decides to switch him back to his natural position, it’ll likely come in the following offseason when all players involved have time to acclimate properly.

At the end of the day, this regime hand-picked Sewell to be an elite player a premium position, while Decker was selected and extended by the last front office. That’s why my gut feeling is the team wants to see your ideal scenario happen with Sewell moved to the left side and Decker to the right. I’m just not sold that this happens during this season.

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