They’re big and burly and not at all dandelions, but cultivating an elite offensive line in the NFL is like growing a prize garden — both require plenty of pruning to keep the weeds out.
That’s the spot the Detroit Lions find themselves in this offseason as they look to keep one of the NFL’s best lines blooming well into the future.
The Lions have four of their five starters under contract for 2023, with only right guard Evan Brown scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but forward-thinking decisions to make at all three interior line spots.
⋅ At right guard, the Lions have a decision to make on Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who missed the 2022 season after undergoing back surgery. Vaitai has two years left on the free agent contract he signed in 2020, with base salaries of $9.4 million due each of the next two years.
The Lions could keep Vaitai at his current salary if they believe he can return healthy, ask him to take a pay cut after he played 25 of a possible 50 games over the past three seasons, or look elsewhere for his replacement, perhaps in the draft where they have five of the first 81 picks, while freeing up $6.5 million in cap space.
Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence, USC lineman Andrew Vorhees and Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz are among the top interior line prospects in the draft.
⋅ Brown had an up-and-down season while playing through an ankle injury, but has been invaluable to the Lions while starting 13 games at center and 11 at guard the past two seasons. He could command a free agent deal worth more than $10 million annually, according to Spotrac, which likely would put him out of the Lions’ price range, especially if they keep Vaitai.
If Brown leaves in free agency, the Lions will need to find a capable backup for Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, who played through a toe injury this season and is contemplating offseason surgery. Ragnow missed most of the 2021 season after undergoing surgery on the same foot.
Ragnow is one of the best centers in the NFL, but has missed at least one game every season since his rookie year. Backup tackles Matt Nelson and Dan Skipper also will be restricted free agents.
⋅ Jonah Jackson is locked into place as the Lions’ starting left guard, but is eligible for a contract extension heading into the final year of his rookie deal.
Jackson told the Free Press in multiple interviews late in the season he is open to staying in Detroit long-term.
“Oh, without a doubt. I love Detroit,” Jackson said. “I would retire in Detroit. I would love to be a Lion forever. I love the city. It’s not much different than Philadelphia (where Jackson grew up). A little bit smaller, but culture wise, the nitty-gritty blue collar. Good food. I just love everything about it. It’s not much different from where I come from. The elements. The people are awesome. They fully embrace you. (The media is) great. I wouldn’t mind calling it a day out here.”
Lions general manager Brad Holmes signed Ragnow to an extension in 2021, when he spent his first spring in Detroit fortifying the offensive line. The Lions took right tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh pick in the 2021 draft, and inked Ragnow to a four-year extension a week later while Ragnow still had one year left on his rookie contract.
Jackson, in a similar spot contractually, likely will not approach the $20 million annual salary Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson averaged on the extension he signed in September, but could fall into the next tier of guards that begins at $14 million as one of four Lion linemen to receive Pro Bowl votes (along with Ragnow, Sewell and left tackle Taylor Decker),
Some past Lions regimes have been philosophically opposed to signing guards to large contract extensions. If Holmes does not intend to re-sign Jackson, it may be even more important to add a young blocker to the pipeline to keep the Lions’ line among the game’s elite.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Jackson said. “If it doesn’t, I’m the same guy, the same (No.) 73 who showed up for work every day from COVID Year 1 to now, hopefully getting better. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”