Detroit Lions: Replacing Taylor Decker is no easy task

Sep 25, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Lions will be without left tackle Taylor Decker for the foreseeable future, and filling his spot will be next to impossible.

Well, so much for optimism and positivity. With the news breaking that Detroit Lions left tackle Taylor Decker recently underwent shoulder surgery and is currently without a timeline to return to the field, the warm and fuzzy feelings that recently surrounded the team have seemingly evaporated. Apparently, Decker sustained the injury during the first week of organized team activities, and is likely to miss the remainder of the offseason program.

In fact, the sophomore tackle could conceivably miss regular season action as well, depending on how his rehab goes. While head coach Jim Caldwell recently stated that he doesn’t believe the ailment will cost Decker the entire year (per Dave Birkett of The Detroit Free Press), a lengthy absence appears to be a legitimate possibility.

No matter how you spin it, this is bad news for the Lions and their fans. Decker’s importance to this team is undeniable. After a terrific rookie season that saw him play every snap and finish as the 23rd-ranked offensive tackle in the league with a final grade of 82.4 (Per Pro Football Focus), hopes were extremely high for the former Ohio State Buckeye.

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In Year 2, Decker was set to take the next step in his development into a franchise-caliber left tackle, while providing top-notch blindside protection for Matthew Stafford. Now, the Lions will have to fill that role with someone else, and that will be next to impossible.

If the team elects to turn to an in-house candidate, sophomore guard Joe Dahl appears to be the immediate favorite to step into the role. In fact, according to the aforementioned Birkett, Dahl received the first crack at starting reps during Tuesday’s practice.

A 2016 fifth-rounder, Dahl is a player the team appears to like. In fact, he was viewed as a sleeper candidate to receive a significant role as a depth player along the interior offensive line in 2017. There’s no question he has upside and he played quite a bit of left tackle in college, so he’s certainly no stranger to the position. Still, after seeing such limited action at guard last season, it’s asking an awful lot of him to step into such an enormous and significant role.

Cornelius Lucas reportedly received some first team reps at left tackle as well, and Corey Robinson could be a contender for the role once he returns from injury. Lucas and Robinson were widely expected to compete for the team’s swing tackle role during the offseason so they are both firmly in the mix, but at present time, Dahl appears to have a leg up on the competition.

Detroit also signed veteran John Hills on Thursday, per Justin Rogers of The Detroit News. The 32-year old has been in the league for some time. However, his career to this point has been less than promising. To put it bluntly, he’s nothing more than a warm body to hold a spot.

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If the team elects to turn to another free agent offensive tackle, there are a handful of options as well. The team just hosted former Buffalo Bills 2014 second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio for a visit and while he reportedly left without a deal, that doesn’t mean that the team has elected not to sign him. After all, Matt Asiata left Detroit without a contract after his visit, and we all know how that worked out. Furthermore, Koundjio is currently recovering from hip surgery, so there’s no point in rushing to an agreement.

Nate Atkins of recently posted an in-depth look at the team’s other free agent possibilities and listed Ryan Clady, Austin Pasztor, King Dunlap, and Mike Adams as options alongside Kouandjio. Each of these men stands as an intriguing option but comes with his fair share of question marks as well, so the Lions might just elect to go with the players they already have in camp.

Ultimately, whether it’s a free agent or a roster player, whoever fills the left tackle position in the interim is going to represent a significant downgrade from Decker. This isn’t a knock on any of the players discussed, but a simple acknowledgement of the fact that the 2016 first-rounder is one of the brightest young linemen in the game today. For a team that invested substantial resources into improving the offensive line in 2017, losing such an important player for any amount of time is significant cause for alarm.

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With that being said, injuries are an unfortunate reality of the NFL, and teams are always scrambling for contingency plans should a star player be sidelined. The Detroit Lions are preparing to move forward without Taylor Decker for the foreseeable future and while there are a handful of options available, until he’s back at full health and in the lineup, the team may struggle to replace his impact.