This is the fifth of an eight-part series previewing the Detroit Lions’ interests heading into the 2023 NFL combine, which kicks off next week. Today: Offensive linemen. Previously: Running backs | Receivers | Tight ends | Quarterbacks
Frank Ragnow and Penei Sewell were Pro Bowlers last year, while Taylor Decker and Jonah Jackson were alternates. That foursome helped pave the way for Detroit’s best ground game since the Barry Sanders years, while Jared Goff was just one sack off a career low. In short, the Lions had one of the best offenses in the league last year, because they had one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Now they return all five starters next year, while four of the five are under club control for 2024 too. By NFL standards, their immediate needs up front are very low. But if they want that unit to remain among the best in the league, it could be time for re-investment. That’s particularly true on the interior, where right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai has never been able to stay healthy since arriving in Detroit. He didn’t play at all last year after undergoing back surgery, and now has a cap hit of $12.4 million looming next year. The Lions would save $6.6 million by moving on.
There are questions on the horizon at left guard too, where Jackson has become a fabulous player and so important to the running game. He’s also heading into a contract year, and Detroit either has to give him a huge pay raise in the next 13 months, or begin plotting their next moves at the position.
This class is weak at offensive guard, but there are some strong options at the top.
OT/G Peter Skoronski, Northwestern: Remember when Aidan Hutchinson showed up at the combine last year, blew the thing away, but still faced questions about his arm length? Something that clearly still bothered him months later? Skoronski will probably be able to relate next week. He was the most dominant offensive tackle in college football last year, allowing just six pressures and one sack all season according to ProFootballFocus. In his toughest matchup against Ohio State, Skoronski allowed just one pressure and no sacks at all. He has good size and elite technique, too. He’s the total package — except, of course, his arm length. That is sure to become a talking point when he shows up in Indianapolis next week, and some clubs could project him as a guard because of it. Either way, he’s the favorite to be the first offensive lineman off the board.
OT Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State: At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Johnson certainly looks the part of an NFL left tackle. He played the part after moving there last season too, allowing just 10 pressures all year. He allowed two sacks on 910 pass blocks over the last two years combined, and should draw significant Round 1 interest from teams in search of a Day 1 pass protector. (Hello, Tennessee.)
Other possible Lions fits
G O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida: Love the fit for Detroit. I love it so much that I actually mocked Torrence to the Lions this week, and did so over Texas running back Bijan Robinson. Why? Because Detroit isn’t trying to build a winner for this season. It’s trying to build for the long haul. And while Robinson would undoubtedly help them, there’s no surer path to long-term success than by prioritizing the big fellas in the draft. Just look at what the Lions have already built. Their offensive line is so good that Jamaal Williams, a career backup, just went off for 1,000 yards and set Barry Sanders’ franchise record for touchdown runs in a season. Jared Goff was sacked just 23 times all year, one off his career low, and suddenly had the best season of his career. That’s the beauty of a high-caliber offensive line — it makes everyone else look good. And Torrence would be an ideal succession plan for the future at guard. At 6-foot-5 and 347 pounds, he is built like “The Mountain” from “Game of Thrones.” He didn’t allow a sack in three seasons at Louisiana, and might have been a first-round pick last year had he turned pro. Instead, he transferred to Florida to prove he really was among the nation’s best, then didn’t allow a sack again while ranking as the No. 1 run blocker in the country according to PFF. The Lions have a lot of ways they can go with the 18th overall pick, but it’ll be tough to pass on Torrence if he’s there.
G Steve Avila, TCU: A three-year starter and captain who played both left guard and center for the Horned Frogs. Allowed no sacks on 540 pass blocks last year.
G Cooper Beebe, Kansas State: Cody Whitehair and Dalton Risner both went from Kansas State offensive tackles to successful NFL guards. Next up is Beebe, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound road grader in the ground game. Seriously though, when it comes to running the football, few prospects physically overwhelmed their opponents quite like this guy. The tape is fun. He’s not so bad in pass protection either, allowing just two quarterback hits and no sacks last year.