Creating a great offensive line has been a goal of the Detroit Lions for decades, and finally, it seems they have the makings of a solid group in 2021.
Even though that is the case, it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some missteps along the way toward getting there, and one of the biggest still remains on the roster according to certain analysts in the form of offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
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The Lions signed Vaitai a few offseasons ago as a free agent, and handed him a whopper of a contract in the form of a five-year, $45 million dollar deal. After an injury-riddled first season in Detroit, folks began to write off Vaitai, and as it stands now, he might still have the worst contract on the team.
Recently, Pro Football Focus took a look at naming the best and worst contracts of every NFC team. As brilliant as Detroit’s move to lock up Taylor Decker looks, the Vaitai deal appears to be just as bad. The contract was rated by Brad Spielberger as the team’s worst for 2021.
As for why, he wrote:
“In the same season the Lions beat the Ravens to the table on Decker’s extension, they also jumped the gun on Vaitai.
The veteran tackle was coming off his best season as a pro, having earned a 72.8 grade with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019. He had logged roughly 400 snaps as the starting right tackle to close out the season following an injury to Lane Johnson. Detroit paid him like they projected him to be a top right tackle going forward (his $9 million per year average is still top-10 at the position).
Nevertheless, he belongs at right guard, where he’ll return following the draft selection of Penei Sewell. But that would make him tied for the fifth-highest-paid right guard in football on a multi-year deal, which is still above his on-field value. If Vaitai can play up to the level of his contract with the aforementioned Decker at left tackle, center Frank Ragnow now deservedly the highest-paid player at his position and two promising young players in Sewell and LG Jonah Jackson, the Lions may have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL the next few years.”
The Lions need to hope they can get some solid play out of Vaitai at guard to justify this deal, and the hope is he can also stay healthy which could lead to a career resurgence. If Vaitai rebounds, the deal could look a lot better than it did in 2020. Should he struggle again, though, the team would likely be forced to think about moving on in coming years.
Knowing this, there’s a decent amount of pressure on Vaitai in 2021.
Vaitai Getting Encouragement From Lions Coaches
After signing a massive deal with the Lions in the offseason, Vaitai looked like a shell of himself last season. He was injured most of the year, played inconsistently as a result and was placed on injured reserve by late November. As a result, most wouldn’t project a quick turnaround for Vaitai in 2021, and many believed he should either be on the trading block or up for a release.
That though might not carry over in terms of Vaitai’s position coach, though. Hank Fraley, who was retained by Dan Campbell and the Lions as offensive line coach, was asked about what Vaitai can bring to the mix in a recent interview. As he said, now is not the time to be giving up on Vaitai thanks to his overall talent and what he can do.
That quote seems to hint that Vaitai isn’t likely to be going anywhere, especially considering his age and contract status. The lineman is under contract for another three seasons, and it’s clear the Lions want to squeeze as much good football out of him as possible no matter what the contract may look like.
Vaitai’s NFL Statistics
Vaitai, out of TCU, is only 26 years old and has 20 career starts under his belt from his time with the Eagles which is where he started his career. Vaitai has also played in 55 NFL games in his career, and was a former fifth round pick of the Eagles from back in 2016.
Vaitai helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII a few years back, and is an up and coming lineman in the league given these facts. A big selling point when he came to Detroit was his ability to play either tackle spot or guard, even though Vaitai is an offensive tackle by trade. In Detroit, he’s done a bit of both so far but been used at guard most regularly. The results haven’t been great thus far, but that could have plenty to do with his injury and how he’s never quite been himself this season since joining the team.
The hope is Vaitai can begin to turn things around, because if he cannot, the deal will only look worse in the years ahead.