I had high hopes for the Lions this year. Most experts are predicting a drop-off from last year’s playoff season, but I expected the Lions to build on last year’s season. Even though they over-achieved a bit last year, they spent the offseason improving at every position… from the Wagner and Ward signings to replace the right side of the line to the rookies drafted to start at LB, CB and likely WR. Golladay is expected to replace Boldin as a younger, cheaper version; the LB group is deeper than ever; and the corners are a young and underrated group ready to grow together. Everything was setting up for the Lions to repeat their playoff run – and maybe even take the next step toward contention.
Then reality set in… in the form of an injury. On June 9th, Ian Rappaport reported that Taylor Decker had undergone shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and would miss 4-6 months in recovery. That timetable was not provided by Jim Caldwell or the Lions, but it’s pretty typical for an injury like this. That means that, even in the best case scenario, Decker will miss the first month (4-5 games) of the season. Decker was great as a full-time starter at left tackle during his rookie year in 2016, playing every single snap protecting Matt Stafford’s blindside. In fact, at this point Stafford is probably the only offensive player who is more valuable than Decker – so this injury hurts. A lot.
I wish I could offer a silver lining, but the first 4-5 opponents the Lions will face make Decker’s absence even more glaring. Pro Football Focus ranked all of the defensive front sevens in the NFL based on 2016 stats, and the Lions will deal with the Cardinals (5th), Giants (11th), Falcons (24th), Vikings (6th), and Panthers (3rd) during the first month of the season. The most likely scenario would be for the Lions to place Decker on the PUP list, making him eligible to return after week 6 (Saints – 28th). Since week seven is Detroit’s bye week, I expect that the earliest Decker will return is Sunday night’s week 8 game against the Steelers.
This is clearly less than ideal, but it’s the reality of the NFL. Can the Lions stay above water while Decker works his way back? They probably need to figure out a way to go 3-3 before the bye week without Decker. I believe in Jim Bob Cooter and the ways he will use scheme to protect the left side of the line (the Lions signed one of the best blocking TEs in football in Daniel Fells this offseason), but they will still need to find a solution to protect Stafford. Here are the best options:
A rookie last year, Dahl spent the whole season learning both guard positions and was expected to compete with Graham Glasgow and Laken Tomlinson for the starting LG spot. However, Dahl started at LT for his final two years at Washington State, and he has the size to play the position in the NFL. Dahl has already been starting at LT as Decker’s replacement during OTAs, so he’ll have a full offseason and training camp to get reps. Dahl represents the best possible solution, since he is already under contract and was already developing into a future starter on the interior.
Robinson was a seventh round pick in 2015 and started three games as a tackle for the Lions over the last two years. The coaching staff has been developing him for two years in the system, but Robinson’s ceiling is likely a career backup who can start in a pinch but who would be exposed over the course or multiple games. He served as the backup tackle last season, but is still recovering from a foot injury and has not been able to participate in OTAs or mini camp practices so far.
Lucas has been with the Lions for three years, joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He has 6 starts in that time, mostly at RT. The Lions re-signed Lucas this April as a restricted free agent, but with Wagner and Decker locked in as starters, Lucas and Robinson were expected to compete for the backup swing tackle job (with the loser likely a roster cut).
Clady is the most talented free agent option at the position, with over 100 starts at LT in his career. He has missed large chunks of three out of the last four seasons with injuries, however – which is probably why he’s still available. Still, if he can hold up for six games while Decker recovers, Clady is probably the best chance the Lions have to come close to replicating Decker’s contribution. At this point in his career, Clady is probably more comparable to Riley Reiff than Taylor Decker, but that would be better than any other prospect the Lions are considering.
Mike Adams or Cyrus Kouandjio
Adams is 27 and Kouandijo is just 24, but both have some red flags. Kouandjio was released by the Bills after police found him mostly naked in a field begging to be shot. If the Lions were satisfied that his mental issues are under control, they could find a bargain backup for the long-term. Adams washed out as a starter in the NFL, but was serviceable in Chicago as a backup last year. Neither option represents much of an upgrade over Cornelius Lucas or Corey Robinson, however.
The good news is that, with the signings of Wagner and Lang added to the development of young players like Glasgow and Travis Swanson, the rest of the line is stable. The Lions could run more multiple TE sets early in the year and leave Fells in to block on the left side, or they could run heavy sets with two tackles on the left side (that’s how Reiff got his start as a rookie). Either way, I think it would be wise to kick the tires on Clady.
According to Over the Cap, the Lions have nearly 8.6 million in usable cap space this year – more than enough to handle a contract like Clady’s $5.5 million cap hit with the Jets last year. Of course, much of the remaining cap space is expected to get absorbed in contract extensions for Stafford and possibly Ansah, but if the Lions can bring Clady in for $4 million to man the left side for half a season while Decker recovers, it just might be worth it. I’m excited about Joe Dahl’s future – I anticipate him taking over for TJ Lang at RG or even Ricky Wagner at RT in 3 years – but I’m nervous about throwing him in at LT against the likes of the Cards, Panthers, Vikings, and Giants. Clady is an expensive short-term fix, but it’s worth it to protect Stafford – the most important investment the Lions have made in a decade.
Update: The Lions signed former Bills LT Cyrus Kouandjio and traded a 2018 6th round pick to the Rams for Greg Robinson. Kouandjio was released by the Bills after a bizarre incident where police found him in a field with no pants on. Robinson was a former first round pick (2nd overall in 2014) who had fallen out of favor with the Rams recently after being moved around to RT and G before being demoted. Both players will join an open competition in training camp to determine Decker’s short-term replacement. However, the Lions’ aggressive move to bring in so many tackles may hint at an expectation that Decker’s recovery may be closer to 6 months than four. If Decker does take 6 months to return, he would miss the first 12 games of the season… here’s hoping Greg Robinson can make the most of his 2nd chance.