With the re-signing of backup center Evan Brown on Tuesday, the Detroit Lions now return their top seven offensive linemen from a season ago.
That group includes starters Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Penei Sewell. Along with Brown, who played so well in 12 starts as an injury replacement for Ragnow last year that the Lions wanted to lock him up before the start of free agency, Matt Nelson also returns under the exclusive rights tender as the team's swing tackle.
"We have the ability to be dominant upfront. Not just good, but dominant," new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said at the NFL Combine earlier this month. "I think those guys over the course of last year showed at one point in time, all five of the starters and even the guys that played that were more backup types to start the year, they showed the ability to be not just be a good unit but one of the best in the NFL."
Ragnow, a Pro Bowler in 2020, played only four games because of a toe injury, and Decker missed half the season with a finger/hand injury. That allowed Brown and Nelson to prove their worth in extended roles. Brown finished ninth among all centers in ESPN’s pass block win rate (95 percent) last season.
Go behind the scenes with the Detroit Lions during 2022 free agency.
In just his second season after being selected as a third-round pick out of Ohio State by Detroit in 2020, Jackson earned his first Pro Bowl nod this past season. Sewell, Detroit's first-round draft pick in 2021 (No. 7 overall), was named to the Pro Football Writers and Pro Football Focus All-Rookie teams.
Decker is annually among the top 10-15 at his position, and Vaitai did not allow a single sack from the right guard spot last year.
It's not outlandish to think Detroit could potentially have several Pro Bowlers along their offensive line next season, and it's easy to see why Johnson is so optimistic about this group.
Even reserves Tommy Kraemer, Logan Stenberg and Ryan McCollum have experience. Kraemer and McCollum started games for the Lions last season.
"Tommy Kraemer, undrafted this year, playing in a bunch of games," Ragnow said after the season. "Evan Brown definitely wasn't a household name, by any means, and he's playing right up there with everybody and doing really, really well. The list goes on. That's hats off to them, as individuals, and I think that's a really big hat off to (offensive line coach) Hank Fraley.
"I can't say enough about him as a coach, how he coaches us, how he communicates, how he keeps everybody ready and coaches everybody the same. It's incredible, man. It's been great to see those guys step up. I saw some things – we had a pretty good season running the ball this year and I'm so frustrated I wasn't able to be a part of it. But to see that, with as much injuries as we did have up front, and the different lineups, it's great for the future."
The Lions topped 1,800 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns and maintained a rushing average of at least 4.4 yards per carry last season for the first time since 1998, when Barry Sanders was their running back.
General manager Brad Holmes and the Lions still have a number of needs to address in free agency and the draft, especially on defense, but one of their strengths going into next year is the star power and depth they've built along their offensive line.