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There were few Detroit Lions players with a more disappointing 2020 season than that of Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Considering how bad that season was, that’s saying something. The veteran offensive lineman was handed a big contract, but failed to deliver for a myriad of reasons.
Because of that, many are expecting the former Eagles lineman to fail again in 2021 and be released from his contract as early as next year.
Not so fast, my friend. While Vaitai has yet to prove it on the field, there are plenty of reasons to believe he can turn it around in 2021 and potentially continue to be a part of this starting offensive line beyond this year. It starts with looking at why things went wrong last year, what the Lions saw in him originally, and what the Lions’ plans are for him going forward.
Our 2021 roster preview series continues with Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
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Can Will Harris benefit from new coaches?
It’s Da’Shawn Hand’s last chance
Is Taylor Decker a top-10 LT?
Is Geronimo Allison being overlooked?
What do the Lions have in store for Nick Williams?
Expectations heading into 2020
When the Lions signed Vaitai, it was clear he was their planned starting right tackle. He came with a bulky contract (five years, $45 million), so expectations were high that he’d come in and play at a high level immediately.
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There was certainly some skepticism right away with the contract, considering Vaitai had started just 20 games in four years with the Philadelphia Eagles. But the feather in his cap was that he played extremely well in 2017 during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run—as the team’s starting left tackle, no less.
Considering Detroit had struggled to find a starting-caliber right tackle for decades, there was some guarded relief that Vaitai could be that man, and round out a reformed and improving offensive line.
Actual role in 2020
2020 stats: 10 games played (10 starts) — 6 starts at RG, 4 starts at RT — 6 sacks allowed,
PFF grade: 59.7 (55th among 92 qualifying iOL, 75th among 93 qualifying OTs)
The Lions’ right side of the offensive line was a bit of a mess to start the year. After letting Graham Glasgow walk, it appeared Jonah Jackson was going to slide in at right guard with Vaitai sticking at tackle on the right. But training camp injuries caused the Lions to shuffle everything in an already-shortened offseason. Joe Dahl—the team’s starting left guard—missed a few practices in camp, while Vaitai himself suffered a foot injury that would cause him to miss the first two games of the season and hamper him the rest of the way.
Things didn’t get easier into the regular season. Dahl suffered another injury that landed him on IR in the season opener causing Detroit to make several positional adjustments along the offensive line. Jackson moved to left guard leaving the right guard spot open upon Vaitai’s return.
Despite playing very limited snaps at guard during training camp, Vaitai became the team’s starter there in Week 3. Injuries, though, continued to plague him. He only played in every single offensive snap of a game four times in 2020. When Tyrell Crosby was placed on IR late in the season, he switched back to right tackle.
In terms of performance, Vaitai didn’t actually do too poorly when thrown into the right guard position despite the limited practice. However, his play at right tackle was certainly disappointing. Here are his PFF grades by position.
Start 1: 54.9
Start 2: 73.0
Start 3: 72.1
Start 4: 42.3
Start 5: 70.4
Start 6: 73.9
Start 1: 66.0
Start 2: 68.4
Start 3: 38.1
Start 4: 53.9
Overall, Vaitai spent much of the season as the weak link on the offensive line—well below expectations.
Outlook for 2021
Contract status: Signed through 2024
There are a few reasons to believe Vaitai could bounce back in 2021 and it starts with his health. Vaitai played through a lingering foot injury that clearly impacted his play. Don’t take my word for it, offensive line coach Hank Fraley specifically pointed to that as one reason for his struggles.
“Everything didn’t go right for him (Vaitai) last year and it starts with just being healthy,” Fraley said back in May. “If he’s a healthy player—he was having a really good training camp, but unfortunately he had to fight through his injuries and it really affected him all year.”
Also working in his favor is that he has a clearly defined role going forward. With the Lions investing the seventh overall pick in Penei Sewell, Vaitai clearly enters 2021 as the team’s projected starting right guard. In fact, Detroit’s entire starting five offensive linemen are pretty clear at this point, giving Vaitai the ability to develop chemistry with his teammates from Day 1. And the Lions are optimistic about Vaitai’s move back inside.
“That guy can do a lot of things that people in this league can’t,” Fraley continued. “He’s athletic, he’s big, moving the line scrimmage in this league is hard to do, you can pull him, you can anchor in pass protection. I’m excited for him.”
Though the Lions signed Vaitai to originally be their right tackle, his skill set should translate to guard even better. He’s a mauler in the run game with some limitations in pass protection. As Detroit continues to finally build a run game, Vaitai could turn out to be a valuable piece in 2021. Though most of his career has been spent at tackle, he’s actually performed better at guard:
The question becomes how long will that last. Vaitai has a bloated contract that will feature cap hits of $8.4 million next year, and $10.4 million in both 2023 and 2024. With most of his guaranteed money off the books by next year, moving on from him would be financially simple if Vaitai doesn’t show drastic improvement in 2021. Starting next year, Vaitai will have the 17th, seventh and fifth highest cap hits among NFL guards over the next three seasons. He’ll need to start playing like it.