Lions 2020 draft preview: The right rookie could be key piece in renovated offensive line
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the 2020 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: Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Tyrell Crosby, Joshua Garnett, Oday Aboushi, Beau Benzschawel, Russell Bodine, Dan Skipper, Casey Tucker, Caleb Benenoch
► Short-term need: Seven out of 10
► Long-term need: Eight out of 10
► Top prospects: Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs, Jedrick Wills, Andrew Thomas, Cesar Ruiz, Lloyd Cushenberry
► Mid-round options: Jonah Jackson, Robert Hunt, Damien Lewis
► Late-round fits: Logan Stenberg, Solomon Kindley, Jack Driscoll
► Analysis: Average is the best way to describe the performance of Detroit's offensive line in 2019. The team ranked in the middle of the pack in pressure rate, sack rate and several run blocking categories, including conversions in power situations (third or fourth down needing two or fewer yards).
But average isn't good enough for a team that's invested heavily in the unit the past four years. That's why general manager Bob Quinn is in the process of remaking the right side of the line.
Gone is Rick Wagner, cut after three seasons. His replacement, Vaitai, has only made 20 starts in four years, but he was at his best at right tackle, where his defining trait was clearing lanes for his running backs.
The Lions want to run the ball more effectively. They dream of controlling games with efficient rushing attacks, like Tennessee and San Francisco did a year ago. That starts with good blocking for the backs.
Detroit's right guard spot is still up in the air. The team let Graham Glasgow walk in free agency, unwilling to meet market demands for a position they believe they can get similar production for far less money.
It's unclear if the Lions legitimately see an answer currently on the roster. They've signed a few bargain-priced veterans, bringing back Aboushi to compete with Bodine and former first-round pick Garnett, but with all three working on one-year deals, it's safe to say none are viewed as a long-term solution.
Obviously the Lions aren't going to draft a guard at the top of the first round, but the position conceivably comes into play as early as the second round where Ruiz would be a fit. Quinn has shown a preference for smart, athletic interior linemen and the University of Michigan product fits the job description with extensive experience playing center, combined with one of the more-impressive performances at the combine.
But like the big contract the team avoided paying Glasgow, they're less likely to invest high-end draft equity to fill the need. And with good value likely to be there in the middle of the draft, it's a reasonable strategy.
Jackson, who finished up his college career at Ohio State, is an outstanding pass protector who would help keep interior pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford. But if you're looking for a mauler to pair with Vaitai, Jackson isn't the choice.
Hunt, a small-school tackle destined to move inside at the next level, might be. He dominated as a run blocker for Louisiana-Lafayette, and the transition to guard wouldn't be foreign since he has some experience playing there. That positional flexibility will appeal to the Lions.
Beyond the team's interior situation, the Lions should also be looking for tackle depth. Blindside blocker Taylor Decker is entering the final year of his rookie contract and the Lions would like to lock him up long-term. But if USC's Austin Jackson or Houston's Josh Jones are still on the board when the Lions are on the clock in the second round, the team would have an interesting decision to make regarding the team's long-term plan.
As a developmental option in the later rounds, Driscoll, who transferred from UMass to finish up at Auburn, needs to add some strength, but has a good foundation of athleticism and technique to build upon.