Apr. 19—Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 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: Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Tyrell Crosby, Matt Nelson, Logan Stenberg, Dan Skipper, Evan Brown — Short-term need: Four out of 10 — Long-term need: Eight out of 10 — Top prospects: Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater, Christian Darrisaw, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Landon Dickerson — Mid-round options: Quinn Meinerz, Trey Smith, Ben Cleveland, Teven Jenkins — Late-round considerations: D’Ante Smith, Walker Little, Dave Moore — Analysis: If there’s a starting group the Lions should feel pretty good about heading into the 2021 season, it’s the team’s offensive line.
Returning all five starters from a vastly improved unit, the Lions are well-positioned to protect new quarterback Jared Goff and provide adequate run lanes for running backs D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams and Kerryon Johnson.
The group is anchored by Ragnow, fresh off his first Pro Bowl selection, and the vastly improved Decker on the blindside. Additionally, a nice thing about the starting five is they’re all 27 and younger.
The bigger concern, as it is with most NFL teams, is the depth is shaky. Given the durability concerns surrounding Vaitai after an injury-plagued first season in Detroit, adding an interior lineman in the draft wouldn’t be a bad plan.
It’s worth noting, we don’t really know what the Lions have in Stenberg. A fourth-round draft pick a year ago, he didn’t see the field as a rookie after a rough training camp. Part of those struggles were tied to the team working him at center, an overwhelming assignment for a first-year player with minimal experience at that spot. It’s possible, with a year of development on the practice field, he’ll be ready to serve as a reliable backup.
Another factor at play, heading into the draft, is the long-term outlook of the line. Crosby is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while Vaitai’s deal gives the Lions an easy out next offseason if he can’t put the injury woes behind him.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Detroit addresses the offensive line as early as the first round, particularly if Sewell is still on the board at pick No. 7.
Absolutely dominant as a sophomore in 2019, Sewell opted out last season after the Pac-12 waffled on whether to cancel the campaign. The biggest issue with the former Oregon standout is his arm length, but that wasn’t a problem in college, where he allowed a single sack across two seasons.
If the Lions were to move back a few spots in a trade, you could also make a case for drafting Slater, a high-floor, polished tackle prospect out of Northwestern.
While there wouldn’t be a need to start either of those top prospects immediately, it likely wouldn’t take long for them to overtake Crosby at right tackle. Most importantly, upgrading from adequate to great at that spot would put the Lions in position to have a dominant offensive line for years to come.
If the Lions prefer a more conservative approach, there are some excellent collegiate guards who figure to be available on Day 2. Meinerz, who played at Wisconsin-Whitewater, has been a pre-draft darling, with his performance at the Senior Bowl alleviating some pre-draft concerns about the jump in competition.
Trey Smith, on the other hand, was forged in the cauldron of the SEC. He possesses an ideal frame for the position and surprised observers with the athleticism he put on display at his pro day. With quality coaching, which he’d benefit from in Detroit, it’s easy to see him developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber player at the position.
In the later rounds, the Lions could go fishing for a developmental tackle. D’Ante Smith, out of East Carolina, is a solid option with his 6-foot-5, 305-pound frame complemented by 35-inch arms.
Little, if he slides into Day 3, also is intriguing. He missed nearly all of the 2019 season due to a knee injury, then opted out in 2020. He looked like a future first-round pick as a first-team, all-conference player as a sophomore. Now, with the question marks from being away from football nearly two years, he’s a possible bargain.
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