Last season, former Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn shelled out some serious cash to career backup offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Vaitai was given a five-year, $45 million contract to help fill the void left by right tackle Rick Wagner, who Quinn released earlier in the preseason.
Now, from the looks of it, the contract seemed like a massive risk. However, the way the contract was structured, the Lions could move on after two seasons and with only $4.2 million owed in dead-cap money.
For the skeptical crowd who didn’t understand why Quinn would give so much money to a player who was never a true starter, their concerns were validated with Vaitai’s play in 2020.
Dealing with a nagging foot injury all season long might have played a factor in his up-and-down campaign.
No matter the case, swing-tackle Tyrell Crosby was more consistent, and ultimately won the job at right tackle when Vaitai returned.
With the Lions dealing with injuries on the interior, it left Vaitai moving inside to guard for 287 snaps, while only seeing 173 at tackle. In essence, the Lions are now paying Vaitai for top-10-level guard production.
Who knows where the new regime envisions Vaitai on the roster, however.
Vaitai ended the 2020 season as the 56th-rated offensive guard out of the 92 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus.
Despite limited playing time, Vaitai still was tied for the second-most sacks allowed (6) by all guards in the NFL -- albeit two of them came when he was playing tackle.
Pass-blocking was never a strength, but he wasn’t much better in the run game, either. The fifth-year pro didn’t finish in the top-half of PFF’s run-blocking rankings at the position.
Going into the 2021 season, there are plenty of players Quinn acquired who could be squarely on the chopping block. Vaitai could be on that list, as well, but his contract makes it rather unlikely.
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If the Lions were to release Vaitai pre-June 1, his dead-cap hit ($14.6 million) would actually be $4.2 million higher than his cap hit ($10.4 million) if he remained on the team.
The one benefit of taking on his dead-cap hit in 2021 would be that he would be completely off the books after this season.
It’s no secret that the Lions are rebuilding. And, if new general manager Brad Holmes wants to make 2022 a season with plenty of cap space, getting out from under the team's big contracts makes sense.
In all likelihood, having Vaitai on the roster next season is not a bad decision. It will not only give him a chance to play when healthy, but it will give a run-oriented offense a potential road-grader.
Also, important to note, Vaitai won’t have any guaranteed salary left on the contract after next year is done. Only the remaining prorated signing bonus will be left on the hook for Detroit in 2022. That’s where the $4.2 million of dead cap comes from, if the Lions decide to wait until after next season to move on from him.
All in all, Vaitai isn’t a bad player. But, he isn’t the type of player the Lions are paying him to be, either.
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