The Detroit Lions knew they needed a complete overhaul of their offensive line during the last offseason.
General manager Bob Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell decided to take one of the biggest gambles in football – building their new front around a rookie left tackle. They drafted Ohio State’s Taylor Decker with the 16th pick, and immediately gave him the toughest job on the line.
It could have blown up in their faces – they were asking Matthew Stafford to trust his blind side to someone getting on-the-job training – but it has turned out better than expected. Decker isn’t headed for the Pro Bowl, but his performance has been a major factor in Detroit going 7-4 and taking charge of the NFC North race.
In 2015, the Lions finished with the fewest rushing yards in the league, and Stafford was sacked 43 times in a 7-9 season. They’ve already matched that win total with five games to play, despite trailing in the fourth quarter of all 11 games.
The raw stats aren’t much better this year. The Lions are 30th in rushing yards and they are on pace to allow 36 sacks, but the line has held up well enough to let Stafford work his late-game magic. In his seven fourth-quarter comebacks, he’s been able to stay upright long enough to deliver victories.
That didn’t seem likely in September. Decker struggled in the preseason and in the first games of the regular season, and there were serious questions being raised about the way Quinn and Caldwell had treated the team’s problems up front.
Detroit ended 2015 with two solid linemen: left tackle Riley Reiff and guard Manny Ramirez. Going into the offseason, they didn’t have a right tackle, guard Laken Tomlinson and center Travis Swanson were coming off terrible years and guard Larry Warford had never regained his early career form after injuries.
Quinn drafted three linemen – Decker, center Graham Glasgow and guard Joe Dahl – but chose not to make any significant free-agent signings up front. Ramirez was gone after the Lions benched him down the stretch to avoid paying a playing-time bonus, leaving four of the five spots in limbo.
That’s when the Lions decided to take an even bigger chance by putting Decker at left tackle. Reiff moved to the right side, and the interior of the line was going to stay the game, with Swanson at center and Tomlinson and Warford at guard.
When Decker was having trouble with the speed of the NFL as the Lions got off to a 1-3 start, it looked like the failure to fix the line had been a major mistake. After six wins in the last seven games, it still appears to have been a bad idea, but one that Detroit’s passing game can partially overcome.
Swanson took a major step forward, thanks to the tutelage of long-time Lions center Dominic Raiola, and Warford looks more like he did as a rookie. Tomlinson lost his starting spot to Glasgow, who hasn’t been much better.
Reiff is reliable when he’s healthy, but it is Decker’s rapid development that has kept the line from falling apart. Despite the problems at the guard spot next to him, the rookie has been able to keep Stafford’s blind side relatively clean, allowing him to make play after play in Detroit’s fourth-quarter rallies.
Things are about to get much tougher for the Lions. Their last five games include road games against the Saints, Giants and Cowboys, and they host two teams that have already beaten them in the Bears and Packers. Detroit’s defense is one of the worst in football – Drew Brees must be looking forward to facing them on Sunday – so the offense will need to keep making plays late in games.
For 11 weeks, Decker has played a key role in keeping Detroit above water. If he slips up, the whole season might fall with him.