Lions training camp preview: Who are the favorites for IOL4/5?

Pride of Detroit

The Detroit Lions are slated to open training camp at the end of the month and we are determined to have you as prepared as possible ahead of the fall event. One of the ways we are working to accomplish this is by continuing our roster battle series, where we identify starters and role players, as well as break down those on the roster bubble.

So far in the series, we have addressed quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and offensive tackle. In this installment, we wrap up the offensive by turning our focus to the interior offensive line. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, make sure you check out:

Setting the table

In 2021, the Lions initially kept five interior offensive linemen: Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Evan Brown, and Logan Stenberg. The Lions also made a pre-regular season transaction to sign Tommy Kraemer, but he quickly reverted to the practice squad after Week 1.

At guard, Stenberg went down with a knee (MCL) injury in Week 7—he would be lost for the season—and Kraemer returned to the active roster as a replacement. Kraemer would go on to start three games at right guard in place of Vaitai (Week 12 concussion, Week 14 illness, and Week 17 COVID) and got better with each rep.

At center, Ragnow went down with a foot injury in Week 4, was replaced by Brown, and the Lions signed rookie Ryan McCollum off the Texans practice squad to fill the backup role. Brown played very well in his 12 starts and missed only one game due to COVID protocols, where he was replaced by McCollum in Week 14.

All seven of the interior players who contributed in 2021 return in 2022. Additionally, the team signed two local UDFA offensive linemen that played on the interior during spring camp: Kevin Jarvis and Zein Obeid.

Roster construction

The Lions typically kept just five healthy interior offensive linemen on the active roster. In the cases where a player was injured, ill, or in COVID protocols, the Lions would elevate a player for game days as insurance. Expectations are that the Lions will maintain the strategy of keeping only five linemen on the interior, with several other capable players on the practice squad for in-season elevations.

The Battleground

With Ragnow fully healthy, the Lions return all three of their starting three interior linemen: Ragnow, Jackson, and Vaitai. That leaves just two open reserve spots and six players battling for them.

Evan Brown started 12 games and earned a 66.8 overall grade from PFF (72.4 pass blocking, 62.9 run blocking) and was ninth among centers in ESPN’s pass block win rate. He looked solid most of the season, but he was much stronger at the beginning of the year as opposed to the end. Despite being a restricted free agent (RFA), the Lions were able to sign Brown to a one-year contract worth $2.025 million, which was lower than the RFA amount. The highest paid backup offensive lineman regardless of position, Brown should have an inside track for the reserve center job.

Tommy Kraemer started three games and earned a 55.5 grade from PFF (66.0 pass blocking, 53.2 run blocking). Kraemer went through some rookie bumps in 2021, but with 238 snaps and six NFL games under his belt, he has plenty of experience to build on heading into his second year.

Logan Stenberg has the demeanor to play offensive line in the NFL, but he didn’t see the field on offense as a rookie, only played on four offensive snaps in 2021, and required surgery to repair his MCL within the last year. One advantage Stenberg did have this past season was rehabbing alongside Ragnow. Here’s what Frank had this to say about Stenberg:

“I think years of experience have really helped him. Me and Logan kinda grinded together when we were both hurt, so we got close. But he’s got an incredible work ethic, he’s a pretty strong, explosive dude, and he’s starting to put together the football stuff, like the terminology, understanding defenses and all that. He’s taken a huge leap, I think, with that.”

Stenberg returns in 2022 hungry and motivated to make some noise, and he did just that in spring practices (keep in mind, they’re non-padded). In fact, when Jackson was subbed out, it was Stenberg who took starting reps at left guard in his stay. The clock is ticking for Stenberg but he will have a chance to seize the moment during this training camp.

Ryan McCollum played in four and started one game in 2021, earning a 49.5 overall grade from PFF (36.5 pass blocking, 53.4 run blocking). Beyond the PFF grades, what is most concerning about McCollum was that when he took over as an injury replacement for Brown in Week 18, McCollum was eventually benched in favor of moving Jackson inside to center and Kraemer came in to start at left guard. McCollum is clearly behind Brown on the depth chart, and unless he can surprise in the fall, third-string centers typically don’t make NFL rosters.

Kevin Jarvis was given the second most guaranteed money ($155,000) among the Lions’ 2022 UDFA draft class. With 39 starts at Michigan State (25 at right guard, 11 at right tackle, and three at left tackle) the Lions surely love his experience and positional versatility. He plays with strength and violence, and his guaranteed money indicates they’d like to keep him around, but he has a tough path to the 53-man roster. A stash and develop move to the practice squad makes a lot of sense.

Zein Obeid was Ferris State’s left tackle but his home in the NFL looks to be on the inside. He’s definitely a sleeper/longshot for the roster, but he is an easy person to root for—Dave Birkett did a nice write-up on Obeid’s life story for the Free Press—and could be another stash and develop on the practice squad player.

Discussion/Projection

Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we only kept five interior offensive linemen: Ragnow, Jackson, Vaitai, Brown, and Kraemer.

Jeremy, Stenberg got a lot of love this spring and a lot of people believe he could be in for a third-year jump. Are you buying that he is a legitimate contender for a reserve role and potentially capable of replacing a starter in the near future?

Jeremy: It’s hard to say given how little we’ve seen of him, but that one day where he took first-team reps in minicamp certainly seems like a positive sign. However, you asked two questions there, of which I have two very different answers. I absolutely think he’s in the mix for a reserve role—maybe even a front runner—but I don’t think his future lies in a starting role. There’s essentially only one starting job available in the long term (right guard) and I’d be surprised if Stenberg eventually took it. He was drafted by a different regime and he’s already halfway through his rookie deal with little to show for it on the field. I think there’s a better chance that job goes to a future draft pick.

Do you agree with my assessment that he’s currently in the driver’s seat for a roster spot?

Erik: I actually like our original projection of Kraemer being IOL5, and then I would slot Stenberg in as IOL6, which would mean he didn’t make the original 53-man team but would be a priority for the practice squad. That being said, once the pads go on in the fall, things could change rapidly. Stenberg likes to mix it up and get physical—we even saw a bit of that in the spring—and if his play can match his bravado, then he could push Kraemer.

For me, Kraemer vs. Stenberg for IOL5 is the battle to watch here, and if anyone else can step up, that’d be a bonus.

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