Once healthy, Lions will have tough decision on how to construct O-line
In a few weeks, when Joe Dahl is presumably healthy enough to come off injured reserve with the groin strain that currently has him on the shelf, the Lions are going to have a decision to make.
Do they insert Dahl back into the starting lineup, at the left guard spot he's manned since the start of the 2019 season, or do they continue with the group of five from Sunday's victory against Arizona, which keeps Tyrell Crosby on the field?
It's a rare conundrum around these parts — six starting-caliber offensive linemen and five jobs.
Position coach Hank Fraley can't allow himself to think that far ahead. He's got to worry about getting his group ready for Sunday's matchup with the New Orleans Saints. But one thing he's certain about is whatever setup the team settles on, there won't be any complaining in his room.
"These guys just go out and work and they're unselfish and they're willing to help however they can," Fraley said.
Entering the season, the Lions had a clear starting five. The left side of the line was the same as the year before with Taylor Decker, Dahl and Frank Ragnow at center. The right side, meanwhile, got an offseason makeover with rookie Jonah Jackson and free agent Halapoulivaati Vaitai in place as the new guard and tackle.
But Vaitai suffered a foot injury ahead of the season opener, pushing Crosby into action. And in two starts, the third-year man out of Oregon performed well enough to merit continued playing time.
"I would say the biggest thing is probably his consistency, overall consistency," Fraley said when asked where Crosby has improved. "That's a lot of things. That's compiled a lot of little things there. You're talking pad level to footwork to keeping the width of the pocket, stuff like that. He did a nice job, came in really in good shape, strong."
So when Vaitai was medically cleared to play on Sunday, the Lions opted to put him at guard instead of back at right tackle.
Vaitai had previous experience playing guard, but maybe not as much as you'd think with how much the Lions played up his versatility when they signed him to a five-year, $45 million contract this offseason. And he certainly didn't see many reps inside during training camp.
Whether it was rust from the injury or just not an ideal fit for his skill set, he was shaky in his Detroit debut, allowing two sacks and committing a hold when he was badly beat on another snap. But while Dahl remains out, Vaitai at guard appears like it will continue to be the setup.
"I think he'll be more comfortable as the week goes on and gets a full week of practice, more reps," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "For the start, I think he was fine. He knows he needs to improve. I mean there were a couple sacks, a couple things, just a couple technique things that he can clean up on. He's a big man. He's a big body in there at the guard position, so we like what that looks like."
The Lions might like what it looks like, but that doesn't mean it's what will be best once everyone is healthy. Plus, Vaitai wasn't paid to play guard. If the Lions wanted to pay big money for the position, they could have re-signed Graham Glasgow, a more experienced and effective player at that spot.
Dahl will be eligible to return in early October, after the team's bye week. That gives the current collective one more week to iron out its wrinkles coming out Arizona and prove its Detroit's best five. Otherwise, the team can always go back to Plan A, with the projected lineup to start the season.