The Detroit Lions’ offensive line was awful in 2015. There are those who blame scheme or coaching for the shortfall, but the truth of the matter is that in at least one offensive tackle position the Lions didn’t even try to put a decent player on the field last offseason. Michael Ola was brought in midseason, but going in to training camp the Lions just decided that the mediocre to terrible play they had received in 2014 was good enough, that injury prone one year wonder La’Adrian Waddle or his backups Cornelius Lucas and Corey Robinson were going to be able to form the great wall of Detroit, and hold the Mongols (or Vikings?) at bay. It need not be said that they were wrong; the pink slips of Martin Mayhew, Joe Lombardi, and Tom Lewand were largely written in the blood that the Lions’ quarterback and running backs left on the field at the hands of opposing defenders.
Taylor Decker: Not A Sexy Pick, But A Necessary One
It is said that football games are won in the trenches, but what does that really mean? For an offense, the ability to gain yardage running the ball on first down has several affects on the overall game. The most important of these is that on second down the offense does not need to gain as much yardage. The result of which is that the offense has more options and is therefore less predictable in it’s play calling. An average running play in the NFL nets about four yards. At some point in every stalled offensive drive, the number of yards required to gain a first down exceeds the downs remaining multiplied by four, and by that math the running game is eliminated as a dangerous option. This allows the defense to primarily defend against passing plays. Another important result of a successful running game is that it allows the quarterback to freeze a safety with play action fakes. If the running game is failing, the play action fake can be ignored by a deep safety, making it only a distraction for the quarterback as he drops back to pass. The play action fake is one of the more powerful weapons in an offense’s arsenal, opening up the deep passing game that the Lions have struggled with over the last couple seasons.
In order to run the ball on first down, offenses need good blocking from their line. When that fails, and it inevitably does for every team, they need the offensive linemen to block specialized 270 lb men who close the first five yards when the ball is snapped at near-Olympic sprinter speed. If the offensive line fails to live up to these responsibilities, running backs are tackled behind the line of scrimmage, quarterbacks get sacked or rush throws to avoid sacks, and the offense as a whole fails. They are not drafted in fantasy football and most casual fans can’t even name all of the offensive linemen on their team’s roster, but whether these men get their business taken care of or not determines whether those fans are going to enjoy the highlights on Football Night in America each week. This is where Taylor Decker comes in.
He Needs To Win The Job, Not Have It Handed To Him
It is said that there are four positions in the NFL that need to be in place for a team to succeed, and left tackle is among them with quarterback, pass rusher, and corner back. Taylor Decker needs to legitimately win the battle with Riley Reiff for the left tackle job if the Lions want their line to go from one of the worst in the league to anything better than average. That is not to say that Reiff is a bad left tackle; he’s not. Reiff is an average left tackle, and that is good enough to have a successful offensive line in the NFL. While it is not ideal to have a merely capable player at the most important position on the line, it can be worked around, and the Lions did so in the second half of last season, focusing on short drops in the passing game, and on doing what worked for their players in the running game under Jim Bob Cooter, rather than the best theoretical way to attack an opposing defense under Joe Lombardi, which was not ideal. In an ideal scenario, the linemen are skilled enough to attack the defense in whatever way should net the best results, but the Lions’ offensive linemen were not up to the task in 2015.
One reason why it is paramount for Taylor Decker to legitimately win the left tackle spot is this: If it can be concluded that Reiff is an average left tackle, Decker beating him out would logically mean that Decker is an above average left tackle. Another reason is that while Reiff is not a great left tackle, he very well may be a great, and will almost assuredly be a good, right tackle.
There are three ways that this battle can go for the Lions. The first being that Decker’s draft position can result in him being handed the left tackle spot, weakening the performance of the most important position on the line to no-doubt disastrous effects. The second, that Taylor Decker could lose the left tackle job in training camp to Reiff which would improve only the right tackle position. And the third, also the ideal scenario, Decker could win the left tackle position by the end of training camp or preseason. Even a slight improvement at left tackle through Decker’s victory will lead to a great improvement at the right tackle position as well by shifting Reiff to the position many said was a more natural fit when Reiff was coming out of Iowa.
The result of that improvement would be better down and distance combinations for the offense, a more comfortable quarterback dropping back in the pocket, and more options for offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in his new offense. That is why Taylor Decker winning the left tackle job is one of the keys to victory for the Lions in 2016.