Allen Park — The Detroit Lions’ 2022 outlook has garnered quite a bit of national optimism heading into spring workouts this season.
While plenty of it is centered around second-year head coach Dan Campbell, a majority of it has to do with the strength of Detroit’s offensive line, which returns all five starters from a season ago and has started to develop a real chemistry in the early stages of camp.
The unit of Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Penei Sewell projects to be one of the best in the league — if they can all stay healthy.
At no point last season were all five of them able to go in the same game; Ragnow (toe) missed 13 games, Decker (finger) missed eight, Vaitai (concussion/COVID) missed two and Jackson (back) and Sewell (illness) each missed one.
Vaitai figures that with the chemistry they’ve built, a healthy season together puts them on track to deliver on expectations.
“If we stay healthy, yeah, we’ll be great. The communication, the chemistry, I feel like we’re going to be one of the top O-lines,” Vaitai said, noting what good chemistry can do in the trenches.
“I know what Frank is thinking already, so I’m like, OK, I need to start thinking about the next move, and then I’ll relay it to the tackle so we can get on the same page. So when they start running stunts and stuff that we already know how (the tackle) is gonna block, I already know how Frank is going to block. I feel like if we just keep that going, I feel like we can work really well together.”
Despite all the shuffling around with Detroit’s offensive line, it still performed admirably. The Lions’ run game averaged 4.4 yards per carry for the first time since 2004, Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line No. 13 and Jackson was named to the Pro Bowl.
In addition to getting everybody healthy, the unit’s development as a whole also can be aided heavily by the development of Sewell, who was selected seventh overall in the 2021 draft and has potential to be a game-changing tackle opposite of Decker.
Campbell talked at length on multiple occasions this week about the improvement between Year 1 in the league and Year 2, saying “that is when you make the biggest jump.”
Vaitai has been a key mentor to Sewell since he stepped into the league, and said he appreciates the curiosity that Sewell displays as a younger player.
“With Penei, after that first year, last year, I think he’s gotten into the groove with the game speed and understanding how the O-line works, and how we work. I think he’s improving a lot,” Vaitai said. “He asks us a lot of questions, which us vets like a lot, right? Penei comes up with questions like, ‘Hey, I don’t understand this, what do you do here?’ and we’ll just sit together and talk about it.”
Campbell noted Vaitai and Sewell have been attached at the hip, joking that they like to get together at night to drink “coffee.” When it comes down to it, though, he knows that young Sewell is in good hands with his mentor.
“Big V, he is kind of a calming presence. He’s smart. He’s a veteran guy who has been there,” Campbell said. “That was somebody that (Sewell) did gravitate to early that did just kind of help him along the way, and they have a great relationship. Really, the whole O-line does.”
Vaitai, for what it’s worth, is also doing his part to make sure the offensive line can stay together through 17 games. He showed up to minicamp this season at the same weight as last year, 325 pounds, but said he’s much leaner than in the past.
“I guess I’m getting old. I gotta watch what I eat,” he said. “I’m just trying to eat cleaner, more protein, not so much of fast food, just a lot of clean products.
“Taco Bell, or from Texas, you know, Whataburger, Jack in the Box, I used to abuse that. Not so much now.”
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.