Lions head coach Dan Campbell delivered some sobering news on Friday. Campbell essentially ruled out any return from starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai in 2022.
“Big V” has not played since injuring his back late in the preseason. He was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 1. It was a tough blow for the offensive line, the unquestioned projected strength of the team. Vaitai was coming off an impressive 2021 season after sliding inside from right tackle, where he struggled in his first season in Detroit after signing as a free agent from the Eagles prior to the 2020 season.
“He’s doing well. I would say that would be very slim to none as of right now, but the surgery went well and he’s doing great,” Campbell said of Vaitai. “It’s just – that’s one of those long-term (recoveries). It’ll be probably – if you’re asking me right now, I’d say it would be hard to get him back.”
Campbell was referring to getting his giant right guard back in 2022, but it’s fair to speculate on if Vaitai will be back in Detroit in 2023.
There are a number of factors at play, and some of those are unknown — most prominently Vaitai’s physical condition. Back surgery is no insignificant procedure. But there are a few factors we can evaluate and help ascertain if Vaitai will be given the chance to come back with the Lions in 2023.
The Lions have used a rotating cast of replacements for Vaitai. Some (Evan Brown, Dan Skipper) have been better than others (Logan Stenberg). The long and the short of it is, the line has not collapsed in Vaitai’s absence. The run blocking isn’t as consistent or powerful, but it’s at an acceptable level.
Given the revolving door and lack of continuity, getting capable play from both Brown and Skipper shows that the line can survive without Vaitai. Interestingly, the projected replacement at the beginning of the season hasn’t played yet either. Tommy Kraemer also went on IR just before the season with a back injury of his own.
Kraemer didn’t have surgery, however. In the very next breaths after ruling Vaitai out, Campbell shone an optimistic light on the chance for Kraemer to come back later this season.
“I do. I think – he’s another one that we’re just gauging his progress right now. I could see him being back at some point here over the next few weeks possibly,” Campbell said.
Kraemer showed real promise as an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame in 2021 and had earned first-team reps in the preseason and training camp when Vaitai or Pro Bowl LG Jonah Jackson were not playing. Kraemer’s playing style is more akin to what Vaitai offers at right guard — a physical, aggressive, power-oriented blocker with more limited range and pass protection polish than Brown or Skipper offer.
The Lions already have viable replacement options in-house. None are quite what a healthy Vaitai offers, but 2022 has proven that it’s not a big step down. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley is one of the best in the business at developing talent and building a line, meaning it’s fair to believe Fraley can coax a higher level out of a healthy Kraemer. Or the continued growth of Skipper, who played well in emergency duty despite being a career tackle-only at 6-foot-10.
Then there are the finances. Vaitai isn’t cheap. Big V has big salaries in the two remaining seasons on his five-year, $45 million contract signed in 2020. After a recent restructuring, Vaitai’s deal will cost the Lions a salary of $9.4 million and a total cap hit of $12.448 million in both 2023 and 2024.
Detroit is on the hook for just under $5.9 million no matter if Vaitai plays for the Lions or not in 2023, the result of the restructures to free up cap room more immediately. Releasing Vaitai would add that $5.9 million figure to dead salary cap in 2023, but it would also free up $6.5 million to spend elsewhere. In 2024 the dead cap figure drops to $2.95 million and the total cap saving shoots up to $9.5 million.
Kraemer will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2023. The Lions can bring him back for the league minimum salary. Evan Brown will be a free agent and he earned $1.2 million in salary 2022. Skipper is earning the league minimum as a vet. Considering Fraley dramatically aided their careers, it’s fair to say at least one would willingly return for 2023 for significantly less than the $6.5 million it would cost to keep Vaitai.
With all that in mind, it seems like long odds for Vaitai to be back in a Lions uniform in 2023.