Over the next several days, leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Offensive line.
► Current roster: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell, Evan Brown, Ryan McCollum, Tommy Kraemer, Logan Stenberg, Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper
► Short-term need: Two out of 10
► Long-term need: Five out of 10
► Top prospects: Ickey Ekwonu, Evan Neal, Charles Cross, Trevor Penning, Tyler Linderbaum, Kenyon Green
► Day 2 options: Tyler Smith, Darian Kinnard, Dylan Parham, Luke Goedeke
► Late-round considerations: Cordell Volson, Chasen Hines, Jean Delance
► Analysis: If there’s a clear strength with Detroit’s roster, it’s the offensive line. The team returns its starting five from a year ago, although, coincidentally, that group never shared the field during the regular season a year ago, primarily due to injuries to the typically durable Decker and Ragnow.
Even with those two leaders missing significant stretches, the unit turned out a strong performance, thanks to quality play from the rookie Sewell and multiple backups, particularly Brown, who filled in for Ragnow the final 12 games. He’s back, as well, re-signing for one season as a restricted free agent this offseason.
If the Lions didn’t make another addition to the group, they’d be fine with what they have. That said, there’s room to bolster the team’s depth, especially at offensive tackle, as well as long-term considerations with a cap decision looming for Vaitai. The starting right guard, signed to a five-year deal in 2020, is scheduled to have an $11.2 million cap hit next season, while parting ways would offer nearly $7.8 million in relief.
Detroit has two young interior options waiting in the wings, but it’s premature to suggest either is ready for a full-time starting job. Stenberg, a fourth-round pick in 2020, has barely seen the field his first two years after suffering an undisclosed, season-ending injury last year. At this point, he might have been jumped on the depth chart by Kraemer, who held his own, starting three contests as an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame last season.
If the Lions had the need, they’d be in excellent position to score a top offensive tackle prospect with the No. 2 pick. But after years of trying to build consistency up front, the talk-radio discussion of trading Decker and replacing him with an unproven rookie just doesn’t make sense. The former first-rounder has plenty of tread on the tires and a reasonable contract compared to his performance.
Realistically, the team also has more pressing needs than hunting for a Vaitai replacement in this draft, but shouldn’t dismiss the possibility if value presents itself in the middle rounds. For example, if Goedeke, the Central Michigan standout, is available in the third round, he’s worthy of consideration.
The former tight end who manned right tackle for the Chippewas is projected to play guard at the next level and has been working out with a legendary CMU alum Joe Staley in preparation for the next level.
Finding competition for the backup swing tackle should also be on the table. Nelson ended up starting 11 games and playing nearly 700 snaps for the Lions last year, but he had struggles in pass protection. It would probably be too aggressive to use early-round resources on a projected backup, but there is some developmental potential in the later rounds. It’s easy to be intrigued by a player with Delance’s measurables, particularly his freakishly long, 36.5-inch arms.
Finally, if the Lions were interested in potentially killing two birds with one stone, it’s worth taking a closer look at Hines. Possessing premium athletic traits and frequently praised for his football intelligence, the North Dakota State standout has experience playing inside and outside. And while he’s projected to be a guard at the next level, he possesses an adequate frame to potentially continue to see work at tackle.