Allen Park — The best-laid plans of mice and men, or in this case, the Detroit Lions, often goes awry.
The Lions invested heavily in their offensive line the past two years, a retooling that culminated with the big-money signings of Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang this offseason. The unit, which had oscillated between average and subpar in recent years, suddenly appeared to be a strength, at least on paper.
But now, following the news left tackle Taylor Decker is out for an undetermined amount of time following shoulder surgery, the Lions have an unexpected question mark to address, at one of the more difficult spots to patch.
Decker, last year’s first-round draft pick, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations as a rookie. Stepping into the blindside role from day one, he showed steady improvement as both a run blocker and pass protector as his debut season progressed. And he didn’t miss a snap while doing it.
Durability has been a calling card for the young offensive lineman. Even during his four years at Ohio State, an injury never knocked him from the lineup. Tuesday’s news couldn’t have been more unexpected.
But this is football, where one wrong step, one wrong hit can fell the epitome of good health. It’s the nature of the beast and so here the Lions are, down one of the most integral cogs to a successful 2017.
If this was last season, the team would have been better equipped to replace Decker. Riley Reiff could have easily slid back over from the right side to his former stomping grounds on the left. Then, at right tackle, Corey Robinson would have been the ideal replacement, after emerging as a vastly improved pass protector.
But Reiff is gone after the Vikings gave him 58 million reasons to come to Minnesota. And Robinson, who could have conceivably handled left tackle at this point, has been missing in action during these OTAs, presumably still recovering from a foot injury suffered late in the 2016 campaign.
The Lions aren’t panicking, at least not publicly. They’ve proclaimed confidence in their multiple in-house options, but it’s a disconcerting group.
Cornelius Lucas brings the most experience to the table, but the fourth-year pro with six starts under his belt has never been the model of consistency. On its 100-point scale, Pro Football Focus has not graded Lucas higher than 55.4 in his three seasons. Decker finished at 82.4 last season.
Joe Dahl will also get a long look. After two seasons at left tackle in college, the Lions kicked him inside to guard after taking him in the fifth round last year. He clearly has a feel for the position having played in Washington State’s pass-happy attack, but he was moved to guard because he doesn’t have the ideal frame to play the position at the professional level.
These are stopgap solutions, which would be fine at many positions, but not one charged with keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford protected from the world’s best pass rushers week after week.
And while the Lions don’t currently anticipate Decker missing the entire 2017 campaign, it’s likely he won’t be ready for the start of the regular season. Regardless of the type of injury, the recovery timetables for shoulder issues are typically long. If it’s a torn labrum, we’re talking four to six months. The same for a rotator cuff. That’s a mid-season return.
If that’s the timetable, the Lions should consider adding a veteran replacement. While the market isn’t brimming with talent this time of year, there’s certainly some passable options.
Former Pro Bowler Ryan Clady is one. Only 30 years old, he’s battled through his own injury issues the past few years, including a torn ACL and torn rotator cuff. The same for King Dunlap, who has missed 13 games the past two years with concussion, ankle and knee injuries. But when in the lineup was arguably more effective than Clady.
Detroit has the cap space, especially after several million were freed up when DeAndre Levy’s release became official at the start of this month. But with the job being obviously temporary, it could be a wrench luring an experienced option.
The Lions have one more week of practice, next week’s mandatory minicamp, to better assess their situation. Maybe in that brief window, Dahl or Lucas show something meriting confidence not yet justified.
If not, general manager Bob Quinn can’t hesitate to pick up the phone to secure a more reliable replacement. It’s not a stretch to suggest the team’s 2017 season could hinge on it.