The Detroit Lions’ heavy investment in their offensive line appears to be paying dividends
Since taking over as general manager for the Detroit Lions in 2016, Bob Quinn has made improving the offensive line a priority. In fact, during his first draft for the Motor City, Quinn used the team’s first-round selection, 16th overall, on left tackle Taylor Decker out of Ohio State.
Quinn would turnaround and draft center Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas two years later with the Lions’ first-round pick once again, this time 20th overall, in 2018. And just this year, the Detroit brass would draft guards Joe Jackson out of Ohio State and Logan Stenberg out of Kentucky in the third and fourth round respectively.
But the draft wasn’t the only way Quinn and company have attempted to upgrade their offensive line play. In 2017, the Lions signed free agent veterans in Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner to expensive contracts. Just this offseason, Detroit inked former Philadelphia Eagles tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to a massive five-year, $50 million deal in free agency.
But whether or not the Lions’ various investments in their offensive line have actually paid off is difficult to determine. After all, the ultimate measuring stick of team success is the win/loss column. And over the past two seasons under head coach Matt Patricia, this has been an epic fail with the team winning a total of just nine games over that span.
And if we are using last season as a barometer, it doesn’t seem to bode well for this unit on the surface. After all, Detroit lost quarterback Matthew Stafford after Week Nine to a back injury that he never returned from, missing half the season. The rushing offense ended up finishing 21st in the NFL averaging 103.1 yards on the ground per game. And the team posted a dismal 3-12-1 record, their worst since 2009.
Next Gen Stats proves the Detroit Lions’ investment in their offensive line is working
Yet, using Next Gen Stats, Around The NFL Writer for NFL.com, Nick Shook, ranked the Lions’ offensive line the ninth-best O-line based on expected rushing yards per carry or xYPC in 2019. This stat attempts to determine how effective offensive lines were at creating opportunities for running backs on a per-play basis.
Here’s what Shook wrote about Detroit’s offensive line making a surprise appearance in his top ten list despite their struggles last season.
"“Detroit’s O-line helped the team make a major jump in xYPC in 2019, leaping from 3.84 in 2018 to 4.33 — yet the Lions were one of the league’s worst squads after Stafford’s season ended in November. With guys like David Blough and Jeff Driskel lining up under center, defenses had little incentive to do anything but prioritize stopping the run.”"
Shook would also point out that running back Kerryon Johnson, who played just eight games himself due to a knee injury, posted a Next Gen Stat of Rushing Yards Over Expectation (RYOE) per attempt of -0.48 with a season total of -54. For comparison, the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry had an RYOE of +1.05 per attempt, leading the NFL in rushing yards with 1,540 in 2019.
What does it all mean? For one, if not for some critical injuries, we might view Detroit’s offensive line as this team’s most improved positional unit. Also, I believe this could translate to a much better rushing performance for the Lions in 2020.
With Georgia’s D’Andre Swift drafted in the second round this year, Detroit now possesses a solid one-two punch of running backs in the backfield including Kerryon Johnson. Swift, who is arguably the top prospect at his position coming out of the draft, gives the Lions some insurance that the team’s rushing attack is less likely to be hobbled due to injury.
This offseason, the Detroit Lions made various changes to their offensive line in large part to improve their rushing attack. If this unit can build on the progress indicated by this Next Gen Stat, that should mean more opportunities and bigger, longer-lasting rushing lanes for playmakers like D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson.