Niyo: Lions laying it all on the line with returning O-line coach Hank Fraley

Three first-round picks. Two hefty contract extensions. One high-priced free agent. You can…

Niyo: Lions laying it all on the line with returning O-line coach Hank Fraley
Niyo: Lions laying it all on the line with returning O-line coach Hank Fraley 1

They’re used to dealing with pressure. Almost by definition, that’s their job.

But as the Lions begin the next phase of their offseason under head coach Dan Campbell, with three days of full-team workouts on the practice field next week, much of the attention will be focused on a group that generally avoids it.

The Lions’ offensive line is the unquestioned strength of this retooled roster, anchored by a Pro Bowl center in Frank Ragnow and carrying the burden of proof that naturally follows the kind of investment the front office has made there in recent years. Three first-round picks. Two hefty contract extensions. One high-priced free agent.

You can do the math. So can Hank Fraley, the Lions’ offensive line coach.

“All I know is we haven’t won any games, and we haven’t lost any games,” Fraley said. “We haven’t given up any sacks, but we haven’t gained a yard. We have a chance. We can be as good as we want to be with the work we put into it.”

But that work is only just beginning, as the Lions install a new offense under coordinator Anthony Lynn, with a new quarterback in Jared Goff and a completely overhauled receiving corps.

More: Film review: Breaking down Lions’ seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson

All the more reason, then, why Fraley’s group should be considered essential workers in Allen Park these days.

A unit that ranked 13th in the league in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus, certainly should improve on that this fall, with five returning starters and one new one in rookie tackle Penei Sewell, a first-round pick widely viewed as the top lineman in the draft. Yet given the question marks elsewhere on the roster, they know they must live up to that hype if Campbell’s going to find any traction in his first year on the job in Detroit.

“Expectations in our room are high,” Fraley said. “But when you come to work and you know what to expect, it’s always a good feeling.”

For Fraley, it’s even more so this spring. Because four months ago, he wasn’t sure he’d be sticking around, following a 2020 season that went off the rails and led to the firing of head coach Matt Patricia in late November.

“We already had our fate as a coaching staff sealed,” Fraley said. “And you just don’t know what the future holds.”

So while the Lions’ coaching search played out the first few weeks of January, Fraley was busy exploring other possibilities, most notably in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Around that same time, though, there was a lobbying campaign going on back in Detroit. Taylor Decker, the Lions’ left tackle and team captain, was among the players who met with team president Rod Wood to share his thoughts about the team’s past, present and future.

“Because I’m invested in this team, and there are people that, if it were up to me, I’d want to keep,” he explained at the time.

Chief among Decker’s endorsements was a pitch for Fraley, he later confirmed.

“One thing I flat-out asked for was to give Hank an opportunity to interview for the O-line job,” said Decker, who signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension last September. “Don’t just clean house. Because I think he does a really great job, and he has a really great understanding of the game. He studies the hell out of everything. And I think his approach with delivering information and new techniques is fantastic, because he played the game for 11 years.”

And that matters, particularly for a relatively young position group like the one he has right now in Detroit, where 27-year-old Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the oldest of the projected starters. Decker is 26, Ragnow turned 25 last week and second-year guard Jonah Jackson is 24. And Sewell?

“I mean, he’s only 20, which is nuts,” Ragnow said last month after signing a contract extension that’ll make him the highest-paid center in the NFL.

Whatever the players said must’ve resonated. Because Fraley is one of the two position coaches Campbell retained from Patricia’s staff. (Tight end coach Ben Johnson is the other.)

“Either I’m really easy on them and they just wanted an easy coach, or they really respect what I bring to the table,” Fraley said with a laugh. “But it was good. It was nice.”

Judging by the emotions wavering in his voice Wednesday, it was more than that. And it’s not hard to understand why. 

Because there’s a foundation he helped pour here and he’s been given enough time for it to set. The entire starting line is locked up contractually for years to come.

And as Fraley noted Wednesday, continuity is a rare commodity in this line of work. He’s entering his 10th season as a coach, but he’d never spent more than three seasons in one city until now. Not surprisingly, he’s starting to feel at home.

“Detroit, it’s kind of, I would say, built like me,” Fraley said. “Blue-collar worker. Just put the hard hat on and go to work. Don’t complain, just go out there, put your hours in and lay it all out there on the field.”

And that’s all he’ll ask his players to do now. He likes the chemistry they’ve developed, loves the talent they’ve added – Fraley actually recruited Sewell in high school while coaching at UCLA – and loses no sleep wondering how they’ll respond. 

“They’re hard workers,” Fraley said. “I love ‘em. Every day I come in here, I’m looking forward to seeing those guys.”

And much like everyone else, he’s eager to see what they can become.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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