Is Halapoulivaati Vaitai an Upgrade from Rick Wagner?

Logan Lamorandier opines on whether or not Halapoulivaati Vaitai is an upgrade from Rick Wagner
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Last week, the Lions released RT Rick Wagner, and agreed to terms with Halapoulivaati Vaitai on a five-year, $45-million contract as Wagner's likely replacement.

Back in 2017, Detroit general manager Bob Quinn gave Wagner a comparable five-year, $47.5 million deal -- which made him the highest-paid right tackle at the time. 

Obviously, Wagner didn't live up to the contract, so Quinn -- in so many words -- handed the future money saved to Vaitai.

Cutting Wagner created $6.1 million in cap space while leaving $5.8 million in dead cap for the Lions. 

Wagner signed with the Green Bay Packers the next day on a two-year, $11 million deal -- including a $4.8 million cap hit in 2020. 

So, Wagner actually has a higher cap hit for the Lions than he does for the Packers in 2020.

Looking at on-field production, Wagner did not have a great 2019 season.

However, is Vaitai an actual upgrade?

Vaitai has never been a true starter, but has logged plenty of playing time in his four-year career.

There is some light speculation that Vaitai could be used as a guard -- if the Lions found another tackle via the draft. 

Given the money Vaitai received, that seems unlikely. 

Also, in the one game Vaitai predominantly played right guard for the Philadelphia Eagles, he recorded the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any game in his career.

In terms of Vaitai's performance at tackle, he has been a little hot and cold. 

In 2017, while starting 10 regular season games, Vaitai saw the most snaps of his career -- he played regularly at left tackle. 

In those games, he allowed nine sacks -- tied for the second-most for all linemen in the NFL that season. 

To his credit, he rebounded nicely to put together one of the best three-game stretches of his career while in the playoffs on the way to an Eagles Super Bowl victory.

Fortunately, Vaitai won't be asked to start at left tackle for the Lions -- only in a pinch.

As a right tackle, Vaitai's rookie campaign in 2016 and his season last year were where he played the most time on the right side. 

He logged 878 combined snaps in those two seasons. 

Coincidentally, those two years were his highest-graded PFF seasons on record. He allowed a total of six sacks and 40 pressures while playing 91 percent of his snaps at right tackle. 

For comparison's sake, Wagner played 753 snaps in 2019, and allowed three sacks and 32 total pressures. 

It's important to note, though, that 2019 was also Wagner's worst season in his career as a starter. 

Even on a down year, Wagner's pass-blocking grade was just slightly below the best season Vaitai's had at pass blocking in his career.

Overall, Wagner has been much more consistent than Vaitai in his career at protecting the quarterback. 

If you had quibbles with Wagner's pass blocking, it's unlikely you will like Vaitai's any better.

Make no mistake, Vaitai isn't known for his pass-blocking prowess. 

Blocking in the run game is his biggest strength. In 2019, Vaitai recorded a career-high 76.2 PFF grade in run blocking.

Looking at Wagner's three-year tenure for the Lions, his highest run-blocking grade was 64.9 in 2017 -- with his worst season of 53.9 coming last year.

In a passing league, the Lions decided to basically give Wagner's contract to a player who looks to be an inferior pass blocker but an upgrade in the run-blocking department. 

More often than not, tackles that can protect the quarterback are the ones that make the most money. 

Who knows -- if the Lions can find that elusive rushing attack that they have been trying to find for years -- maybe it will all be worth it to pay for a run-first tackle.

At the end of the day, Vaitai is four years younger than Wagner, and still could just be hitting his prime. 

It's a projection to say the least, but it's obvious the Lions are banking on it.


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