By: Will Burchfield
The Lions suddenly have a glaring hole on the offensive line, one that could jeopardize their 2017 campaign.
All-Rookie left tackle Taylor Decker underwent shoulder surgery on Monday and may not be back when the season begins in September.
“This is kind of the nature of our game. You’ve got to adjust and that’s one of the things that I think our personnel office does a great job of, I think our players do a tremendous job,” said Jim Caldwell. “We’ll adjust and keep moving.”
It will be hard, perhaps impossible, to replace Decker after he played so well at such a critical position in his rookie season. But the Lions are prepared to look both internally and externally to find the best way forward.
Joe Dahl, though listed as a guard, took first-team reps at left tackle during practice on Tuesday. He was the team’s fifth-round draft pick in 2016.
“He’s coming along. He’s now getting a chance to play multiple positions and Joe’s one of those guys that’s smart. He knows really every position on the line. He’s played a little center, played a little guard, obviously. He can play a little tackle for us, so I think it’ll benefit him,” said Caldwell.
Dahl saw action in six games last season, mostly on special teams. He played on the offensive line in Detroit’s Week 16 loss at Dallas.
Cornelius Lucas also took left-tackle reps during Tuesday’s practice, and was named by Caldwell as someone who could step up in Decker’s absence. The fourth-year pro appeared in five games in 2016 and briefly spelled Reiff at right tackle in Week 8.
Corey Robinson, who filled in for right tackle Riley Reiff two games last season (Week 9, Week 17), is another in-house option. He’s still recovering from a foot injury he sustained in January.
“He’s improving. That’s all I could tell you. He’s getting better. He’s working diligently and we’ll see how it goes,” Caldwell said.
Could right tackle Rick Wagner move over to left tackle in Decker’s absence?
“We have a lot of in-house answers, I think in that regard. He’s certainly capable, but right now he’s at right side,” said Caldwell.
Should none of the aforementioned players look suited to replace Decker, the Lions could turn to the free-agent market.
“We’re always looking at options throughout the weeks, throughout the days to improve our team and we certainly don’t rule that out,” Caldwell said. “It just depends on where you are in terms of internal answers and comparatively with any external answers. We’ll look at all of those and evaluate them.”
Pickings are slim at this point in the offseason, but a few names stand out.
The cream of the crop is four-time Pro-Bowler Ryan Clady. Of course, there’s a reason he remains unsigned: The 30-year-old missed the entire 2015 season with the Broncos due to a torn ACL and missed the second half of last season with the Jets due to a torn rotator cuff. He’d be a serious gamble for any team that signs him.
Former Charger King Dunlap is in a similar boat. He’s proven to be a solid left tackle over an eight-year career but hasn’t been able to stay on the field the past two seasons thanks to knee, ankle and head injuries. He was also arrested in February for violating a protective order.
A lesser-known name to keep an eye on is Cyrus Kouandjio. The 23-year-old was released by the Bills late last month, but showed some potential at left tackle in five starts in 2016. The usual injury concerns exist – a knee in 2015, an ankle in 2016, hip surgery in January – but Kouandjio would presumably cost less than Clady or Dunlap.
Of note: Kouandjio was involved in a bizarre accident in April in which Buffalo-area police found him partially clothed in a field after he’d climbed over an electric fence.
How the Lions proceed without Decker hinges on his recovery timeline. For the time being it’s likely they replace him from within. But if they begin to sense he’ll miss the start of the season, don’t rule out a free agent acquisition.
Either way, Caldwell doesn’t sound concerned about Decker’s ability to pick up where he left off, when that time comes.
“He played a lot of football for us, so I think that certainly bodes well. It’s a little different for a guy that didn’t play much for you. You expect him to do something for you in the fall. I think he’s one of those guys that certainly has proven that he can play in this league,” Caldwell said. “He’s getting better, really coming along, making more and more progress and I think you’ll see.”