The Detroit Lions training camp is getting closer and we continue to make our way through our roster battle series. In this article concatenation, we preview each position group, explore which players have secured starting roles, which have carved out a role with a unique skill set, and identify which players are on the bubble, fighting for a job.
So far, we have addressed quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end. Today we turn our focus to the offensive line and take a closer look at the Lions’ offensive tackles. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, make sure you check out:
Setting the table
In 2021, the Lions opened training camp with a clear top four offensive tackles: starting left tackle Taylor Decker, starting right tackle Penei Sewell, swing tackle Matt Nelson, and Dan Skipper as OT4. Skipper would suffer an injury during training camp and was placed on injured reserve.
When the season opened, the Lions kept just three offensive tackles on their initial 53-man roster: Decker, Sewell, and Nelson. Unfortunately, the group suffered another injury, this one to Decker’s left hand, and the team signed Will Holden and placed Decker on injured reserve.
Decker would go on to miss the first eight weeks of the season, but even after he returned to the lineup, Holden remained on the active roster as OT4. Despite being OT3 for the first half of the season, Holden only played on 12 snaps during that time. In fact, he only totaled 71 snaps on the year, and most of them were as a sixth offensive lineman. Meanwhile, Skipper was released from injured reserve and signed onto the Lions’ practice squad but never saw the field.
This season, the Lions returned Decker, Sewell, Nelson, and Skipper, then added undrafted free agent Obinna Eze as a fifth option. Holden remains unsigned and a free agent.
The Lions fluctuated between keeping eight and 10 offensive linemen on the 53-man roster all season, depending on injury and/or COVID restrictions. The Lions always made sure to keep at least eight healthy offensive linemen active on game days, as doing so allowed them to expand their gameday roster by two players.
While the Lions will surely take the same approach to ensure they have eight healthy offensive linemen available on game days, they also only kept eight on their initial 53-man roster. If they elect to keep just eight on the initial 53-man roster again in 2022, that likely means keeping only three offensive tackles. It’s possible they expand that number to four, but with tough cuts elsewhere on the roster, there is no guarantee a fourth spot is in the plans.
Decker and Sewell have the starting jobs locked up, and Nelson has settled in nicely into the OT3/sixth offensive lineman role. It’s entirely possible the Lions are comfortable with those three and call it a day. But if they do indeed want to keep a fourth, the battle between Skipper and Eze should be a fun one to watch in training camp.
Dan Skipper has been in the NFL since 2017 and is 28 years old, yet he only has two accrued seasons allowing the Lions to sign him to a futures deal worth just $895,000. Skipper is very much an NFL journeyman but he has landed in Detroit several times over his career. Last training camp, he was playing the best football of his career before the injury. It is mildly concerning that he was never able to jump Holden for a roster spot in 2021, but with NFL restrictions keeping us from viewing practices in-season, it’s impossible for us to conclude why.
Look for Skipper to start training camp as the second-string left tackle and he will have to show up every day to hold off the UDFA nipping at his heels.
Obinna Eze went undrafted in 2022 and signed a rookie contract with the Lions that included $170,000 in guaranteed money—the highest in the Lions’ UDFA class—and carried a $711,666 cap hit this season. Eze has rare arm length (36.13-inch arm length) and tremendous power at his disposal. He is still a raw athlete who needs to work on his technique and bend, but he has some positional flexibility—he can play both left and right tackle, and may even be able to push inside to guard—and upside that may make him too valuable to release and risk putting on waivers.
Look for Eze to start training camp on the third string but he may not stay put too long and could work his way up the depth chart quickly.
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we only kept three tackles: Decker, Sewell, and Nelson.
So Jeremy, are you still anticipating three tackles on the initial 53-man roster, or is Skipper or Eze likely to win an OT4 spot?
Jeremy: At this point, I don’t see any reason to change our prediction. While I certainly like the upside of Eze with all the physical tools he has, he is definitely going to need some seasoning before he’s ready to compete at the next level. He has practice squad written all over him. One thing about these high UDFA contacts is that sometimes teams use them to just get them in the door so that if/when they clear waivers, that player is more likely to sign with their practice squad.
Skipper, too, could have a future on the practice squad. He’s likely to clear waivers, and with just two accrued seasons, he could take up a normal practice squad spot, rather than the limited amount (six) of specialized spots for veterans.
I’m guessing you feel the same way, but could you play devil’s advocate and make the case for one (or both) of them?
Erik: In one of our mailbags a few weeks back, I made the case as to why I thought Eze’s path to the roster was the easiest amongst the UDFA class—but I’m with you, despite Eze’s upside, I don’t think he is ready and am comfortable with our original projection of just three offensive tackles.