Fri, 20 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Offensive line

Detroit Lions
18 Jan 2022, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: In an ideal world, a team will have their five best players upfront for the majority of the year. Unfortunately, this is the NFL, and that's pretty rare because of injury, but what Detroit had to deal with in terms of injuries upfront along their offensive line was excessive.

Their best player up front, Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, played just four games because of a toe injury suffered in Chicago the first month of the season. Left tackle Taylor Decker missed the first eight games of the season with a finger injury. Right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed a couple games due to injury and COVID-19, and both left guard Jonah Jackson and right tackle Penei Sewell missed a start.

All that missed time forced a lot of reserve players into action, and the Lions learned rather quickly they had pretty good depth and young talent on their roster. Center Evan Brown, tackle Matt Nelson and guard Tommy Kraemer all stepped in and filled roles this past year.

Detroit finished the season ranked 13th in Pro Football Focus' offensive line rankings. Detroit appears to have a nice blend of veteran experience, young talent and depth upfront along their offensive line.

Detroit's starting five are under contract through the 2023 season, and when they are healthy and on the field together, they are one of the better units in football.

The bad: The Lions led the NFL with 24 false start penalties, and a few of those came at critical moments in 3rd & 1 and 4th & 1 situations. Detroit's 17 holding penalties were middle of the pack.

Here's hoping Detroit's offensive line will stay healthy next season. Lions starters missed a total of 25 games this season.

Key stat: Detroit finished 11th in the NFL averaging 4.42 yards per carry in the run game. Detroit's rushing attack was consistently good all season and put up numbers this franchise hasn't seen since the Barry Sanders era. The Lions totaled 1,886 rushing yards, which comes out to 110.9 yards per game.

Free agents: Evan Brown (RFA), Will Holden (RFA), Matt Nelson (ERFA), Tommy Kraemer (ERFA), Ryan McCollum (ERFA), Tyrell Crosby (UFA).

Brown showed he can be a starter in this league with the way he filled in for Ragnow. He was steady all year, and the Lions should consider tendering him a restricted free agent offer. Nelson is only in his second year playing tackle after switching over from defensive tackle. He and Kraemer are both exclusive rights free agents, which means if Detroit wants them back in 2022, they'll be Lions.

O'HARA: How Lions have fared with the No. 2 overall pick Sewell evaluates his rookie season: 'Not good enough' TWENTYMAN: A look at the Lions' 34 free agents

Draft: Alabama's Evan Neal is considered by most to be the best tackle prospect in the draft, and someone Jacksonville could potentially consider at No. 1 overall.

The Lions solidified their offensive line in last year's NFL Draft by selecting Sewell No. 7 overall. The Lions have all five starters under contract the next two seasons, and have proven depth at all three spots.

It doesn't appear Detroit will be players in this draft when it comes to taking an offensive lineman, unless it's Day 3 and the talent fits the draft spot.

MVP: The Lions were struck a big blow the week leading up to their season opener against San Francisco when Decker suffered a finger injury that would require surgery and force him to miss the first two months of the season.

Sewell played right tackle all offseason and training camp, but seamlessly switched over to left tackle the first eight games, and then moved back to right tackle when Decker returned. Sewell allowed five sacks and eight quarterback hits total in 16 games. He was Detroit's highest graded offensive lineman by PFF.

What should excite Lions fans even more about Sewell is he's just 21 years old and has a deep desire to be the best tackle in the game.

Most improved: Jackson had a solid rookie campaign in 2020, but he took his game to another level this season. He allowed just two sacks and seven quarterback hits in 16 games. He was also graded as one of the 13 best run-blocking guards in the league.

He was named a Pro Bowl alternate. That speaks a lot about the reputation Jackson is earning around the league for the player he's become.

Quotable: "I think we can be great, to be honest," Sewell said of his expectations for the offensive line next season. "Whatever that looks like, it is what it is, but I just know that all of us out there together, man we could do great things. We could feed off each other. I can't wait. I'm looking forward to that."

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