Fri, 05 Mar 2021

2020 position breakdown: Offensive line

Detroit Lions
18 Jan 2021, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: Detroit's offensive line turned out to be one of the Lions' more consistent units all season long. Those players upfront helped the offense score at least 20 points in 14 games this year, which tied a franchise record.

Frank Ragnow has become one of the best centers in the league. He earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2020. He didn't allow a sack in 14 games played, and he gave up just one quarterback hit. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 graded center on the year behind only Green Bay's Corey Linsley. Ragnow was also named Second Team All Pro by the Associated Press.

After signing a multi-year extension this offseason, Taylor Decker had probably his finest season at left tackle. He ranked among the Top 12 by PFF among all NFL tackles, and allowed just two sacks all year protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford's blind side.

Jonah Jackson did some good things as a rookie, as did veteran Oday Aboushi. Detroit's got good depth upfront with a player like Joe Dahl, who can step in and play all three interior spots, and who has starting experience.

Tyrell Crosby stepped in and played pretty well at right tackle as Halapoulivaati Vaitai dealt with injuries most of the year.

Detroit rushed for 17 touchdowns on the year and were top 10 in the league punching it into the end zone in goal-to-go situations and in overall red-zone efficiency.

Detroit finished middle of the pack (17th) in STATS INC.'s protection index, a metric that measures offensive line play using different statistical elements like passing attempts and yards (excluding yards after the catch), sacks, quarterback knockdowns, hurries and penalties, including holding and false starts to form a numerical index assigned to each unit. That's not bad for how much shuffling they had to do because of injuries.

The Lions might also have something in developmental tackle Matt Nelson. The former defensive lineman turned tackle was thrust into action at times this season and played pretty darn well. He didn't allow a sack all year. It will be interesting to see how he continues to develop the more comfortable he gets playing offensive tackle.

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The bad: The Lions spent big in free agency to bring in Vaitai, and unfortunately he suffered a foot injury the final week of training camp that forced him to miss time early in the season. He just never looked completely healthy battling that injury. To his credit, he battled through it, and even made the switch to guard so the Lions could play their best five upfront with him and Crosby on the field together.

Vaitai also dealt with a concussion during the season. He played 100 percent of the snaps on offense in just four contests. Playing six games at guard and four at tackle, Vaitai allowed six sacks and 15 total pressures. The hope is Big V comes back healthy in 2021 with the injuries behind him.

While Detroit's rushing touchdowns were up, the team still finished 30th in the NFL averaging 93.7 yards per contest. The 14 playoff teams combined to average 125.7 yards per game on the ground, more than 30 yards per game difference. That's an area where Detroit's offense still has to find more consistency.

Key stat: Sacks aren't only an offensive line stat. Every player on offense contributes to them at some point in the year, whether that's the quarterback holding the ball too long, a running back or tight end missing a block, or a receiver not on the same page with the quarterback, but in the end, it's mostly an offensive line statistic. Detroit allowed 42 sacks on the year, which ranked 23rd.

Free agents: Aboushi is the only player upfront who's an unrestricted free agent. Aboushi allowed just one sack and two quarterback hits in 15 games and seven starts. He's played in 65 career games with 42 starts, and is one of those plug-and play veterans every unit likes to have. He ended the year starting the final six games at guard and played every snap.

Nelson is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he'll be playing in Detroit in 2021 if the Lions want him to, and there's no reason to believe the team doesn't want to continue to develop the 6-foot-7, 313 pounder.

Draft: The offensive line doesn't seem like a huge priority come April's draft with Decker, Jackson, Ragnow, Crosby, Vaitai, Nelson, Dan Skipper, Dahl and Logan Stenberg, who could be in line for a bigger role after a developmental rookie season, all under contract for next season. But that's not to say Detroit won't continue to build their depth and talent upfront.

Tackle Penei Sewell (Oregon), center Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), tackle Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), guard Wyatt Davis (Ohio State) and guard Trey Smith (Tennessee) are some of the top names coming out of the college ranks along the offensive line early in the pre-draft process.

MVP: This one is close between Ragnow and Decker, but Ragnow has really established himself over the course of his third season as one of the top centers in the game. That position is so important to the entire operation upfront, dealing with the line calls and being the anchor in the middle. Ragnow is set up to be one of the best in the game for the next decade or more.

Quotable: "I think our position had a really good year," Decker said after the season concluded. "I would say in the last five years, this is the best we played consistently.

"I think I had a really good year. I think I was one of the best tackles in football. I wasn't going to say that during the season. The season is over now."

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