Lions starting guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai was placed on injured reserve shortly after Detroit finalized its initial 53-man roster with little-to-no information as to why. Soon after, it was revealed that back issues had been ailing the seven-year veteran, leading to back surgery that pointed towards a lengthy absence. Head coach Dan Campbell gave an update recently, claiming that Vaitai’s odds of returning this season are “very slim to none right now,” according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Vaitai has missed time here and there during his tenure with the Lions, but this extended absence will be the first of his career. Vaitai was set to head into the season as the right guard of a rather impressive offensive line. If healthy, a defender looking at the line from left to right would see Penei Sewell, Vaitai, Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, and Taylor Decker. Through seven weeks, though, Vaitai has remained on IR while Jackson has played less than half of the team’s offensive snaps.
Due to the absences of Vaitai and Jackson, as well as the center Ragnow, Detroit has been forced to rely on the efforts of backup linemen Logan Stenberg, Evan Brown, and Dan Skipper. Stenberg got the start in Week 1 for Vaitai. When Jackson and Ragnow sat out Week 2, Skipper and Brown came in to replace each, respectively, leaving only two of the Lions’ original starting lineman in the lineup. When Ragnow returned the next week, Brown stayed in the lineup and Stenberg found himself on the sideline. The Lions stuck with that lineup until Jackson returned, pushing Skipper to the bench, while trying their hand at Stenberg, again. Brown would come in for Stenberg in Week 5 and, after a Week 6 bye, Brown remained as the only backup lineman in a starting role.
It appears that Brown, initially tabbed as the team’s backup center, is who the Lions have decided to trust with Vaitai’s empty spot. Jackson still appears on the injury report, but, if he can stay healthy, the Lions should be able to roll forward with that line for the rest of the season.
Vaitai is only in the third year of a five-year deal and is under contract through the 2024 season. The season-long injury absence may lead to a contract restructure of some sort, but, as long as Vaitai can return to full health, he should remain the Lions’ top option at right tackle for the future. Brown, on the other hand, is on a one-year deal and could play himself into a new contract elsewhere or even, potentially, with the Lions, making Vaitai a potential trade chip.