It’s amazing what a year can do, along with a coaching change plus a player being focused on playing one position. Detroit Lions starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai recently saw the remainder of his 2021 salary converted into a signing bonus to create some much-needed cap space for the duration of the season.
The Detroit Lions converted the remaining $1.3 million in 2021 to a bonus, but that adds about $300,000 to each of the next three years of the five-year deal he initially signed ahead of the 2020 regular season. Vaitai’s original contract was worth $45-million, averaging $9-million per season.
The extra space will allow the Lions room to fill out their roster over the next two weeks of the season if injuries occur or they happen to see another surge in COVID-19.
Instead of a $3.5 million in dead cap this offseason, Vaitai’s deal would carry a $4.2 million the Detroit Lions would be forced to eat if they decided to release the veteran guard.
The Detroit Lions are likely to keep Halapoulivaati Vaitai around past this season.
Former Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn made a splash in 2020 by signing Trey Flowers, who many considered the offseason’s biggest fish, plus the versatile Vaitai who played everywhere aside from the center position across the offensive line during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The signing, like many free-agent additions, did come with risk. Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia brought in Vaitai to start at right tackle, replacing Rick Wagner. As you know, tackles often make a lot more money than guards, and paying a career backup player better suited as a guard, offensive tackle money was a receipt for disaster.
In 2020, Vaitai split his time between guard and tackle but started as a tackle earning an overall grade of 59.7 courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF), playing 450 total offensive snaps.
Since being the everyday starting right guard, things have been much different in 2021. Vaitai has played 894 offensive snaps, which is the most in any single season to date throughout his career. He’s also proven to be a reliable mentor to rookie tackle Penei Sewell.
According to PFF, Vaitai has not allowed a sack this season and has only yielded five quarterback hits and 23 total pressures. His 64.9 pass-blocking grade is the best of his career, aside from his rookie season, where he posted a mark of 65.6 but only over 421 offensive snaps.
With a healthy group, this offensive line of Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Hal Vaitai, and Penei Sewell has the makings of being a top-five unit.
With the stable of running backs Detroit deploys and a good offseason of acquiring a couple of pass-catchers via free agency and the NFL Draft, the Lions can give quarterback Jared Goff a fair trial in 2022 before coming to a verdict ahead of 2023 when his dead cap number becomes affordable if they decide to release him.
Vaitai hasn’t exactly graded out as someone living up to his contract and is the weakest of the starting five when everyone is healthy. He’s also played well enough to keep rather than eat the $4.2 million to go away, and that is something I never expected to say following his dreadful 2020 campaign.