Lions offensive line faces struggles early 1

3:54 PM 25 May 2013

English: Dominic Raiola, a player on the Natio...

Dominic Raiola, center for the Detroit Lions

In December of last year, one of my Crystal Ball series articles focused on the offensive line. The basic idea behind the article was to show why the Lions didn’t need to take an offensive lineman high in the draft despite the inevitable changes that were coming to the offensive line.

From that article:

At center, I could see the Lions parting ways with veteran Dominic Raiola, who is due $4.05 million. That’s more than the Lions would pay Jeff Backus at left tackle next season. The Lions could cut Raiola and sign him to a smaller contract, and that’s what I think is going to happen. They could also draft a center, but it wouldn’t be in the first round.

Well, that’s exactly what happened. The Lions will bring Dominic Raiola back for the 2013 season, and he will play for the veteran minimum. If you’re not a fan of the ‘midget’ center, there are reasons that at this time bringing Raiola back is the best possible thing the Lions can do.

We’re talking about an offensive line that will have new players starting at three key positions, more changes than I thought would take place. While the $4 million Raiola was scheduled to make was a high price for his abilities, I consider the veteran minimum a bargain for the captain of the offensive line, the one that sets the protections, and the one player that can help the new offensive linemen transition into the Lions blocking schemes.

The Lions had an NFL record 740 passing attempts last season, and the offensive line allowed an amazing 29 sacks. This was far from the best in the league for sacks allowed, but translates into a sack allowed every 25.52 passing attempts. To understand how good that is, we can look at the Arizona Cardinals. They had 608 passing attempts last season and allowed 58 sacks, a sack every 10.48 passing attempts.

Sure, Raiola was never going to be a dominant run blocker in this league, but he has been well above average in pass protection through his career. When one takes into consideration that two of the three new starters on the offensive line will be at the tackle positions, by far the most important positions on the offensive line, bringing back Raiola for one more season more than makes sense, it’s the smart thing to do.

At the time I wrote the article on the offensive line last December, the Lions had a 4-10 record with two games remaining and zero chance at the playoffs, or even a .500 record for that matter. The best they could have finished was with a 6-10 record if they won their final two games.

Jeff Backus, long time starting Lions left tackle, did have one season remaining on his contract and at around $2.5 million was a reasonable expense. Thing is, the Lions had invested a first round draft pick in left tackle Riley Reiff and had used him sparingly in the offense, mostly as a blocking tight end to help the running game.

Looking forward, with only two games remaining and not much to lose, I thought that was the time to give Reiff valuable experience at left tackle he would need going into this season. Backus started the final two games, and that might hinder the development of the offensive line a little this season as a cohesive unit. Reiff could have and should have had two more games playing next to left guard Rob Sims and Raiola. That looks to be the starting offensive line from the left side.

Reiff will be the starting left tackle entering the 2013 season, but could have and should have more playing time at that position. While he should be comfortable with the blocking schemes and protections, this will be his first full year in the NFL at the position. We can expect some bumps along the road.

As I stated, Rob Sims will be returning to the Lions at left guard in 2013 and probably 2014, becoming a free agent in 2015. He will help solidify the left side for the next few years.

The right side of the offensive line is all new, with Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus gone.

Big guard Larry Warford

Big guard Larry Warford

Peterman was due $2,65 million, more than Backus would have made at left tackle had he remained for his final season. The false starts at crucial times made the Lions look in a different direction. I was thinking that Bill Nagy would have a shot at that spot on the line, but the Lions drafted Larry Warford 68th overall in the third round. I had Warford going in the second round of my mock draft, possibly to the Lions, so I am not that disappointed that my Crystal Ball was a little off. Remember, I had stated that the Lions didn’t need to draft an offensive lineman in the first four rounds. They didn’t need to, Nagy could have stepped in at right guard, but once Warford fell to the Lions pick in the third round it became a no-brainer.

Warford should have the inside track to the starting right guard position. I can only think that Bill Nagy and that paper ankle of his have raised some concerns with the Lions front office and coaching staff, hence the Warford pick. If Nagy sticks on the Lions roster, he could step in and fill any of the three interior offensive line positions, and only for a short period.

Warford playing right guard should help improve the running game, but he will have to become accustomed to the Lions blocking schemes and playing between Raiola and the new right tackle. Don’t expect a ground explosion at the beginning of the season, even with the acquisition of Reggie Bush. There will be a few rough patches for the big right guard this season, that’s just the way it is.

What my Crystal Ball had to say about right tackle:

Jason Fox could also play right tackle, and that’s where I expect to see him start next season. Remember, I have Reiff starting on the left side. Backus is depth or maybe even right guard or tackle, depending on where Fox and Nagy are.

 

Gosder Cherilus became an unrestricted free agent when that period began, and the Lions were not in a favorable cap situation at that time. Cherilus ended up with the Indianapolis Colts, signing for five years and $34.5 million. His $10 million signing bonus and first season salary of $5.5 million are fully guaranteed., and if he is still with the Colts in 2016 and 2017, he will earn $7 million for each of those seasons.

The Lions have Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox on the roster, and they will be fighting it out in training camp and preseason for that spot, so to speak. Hilliard was taken in the sixth round of the 2007 NFL draft and does have some experience, having started the final four games of the 2010 season at right tackle. He has played both tackle positions for the Lions and knows the scheme well. Fox, if he can stay healthy, has more talent and would be my choice to start on the right side. Either can play four positions on the Lions offensive line, so I expect both to make the final roster.

Fox was taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft and has battled injuries from the start of his NFL career. Entering last season, he was fighting a knee injury. He did recover and remained healthy for the season, but was buried on the depth chart behind Backus, Cherilus, Reiff, and Hilliard.

Neither saw any playing time during the regular season, and both would take a little time to get fully acclimated as the starting right tackle. We can and should expect some mistakes from the right side of the line. Time will tell if Fox is the right tackle of the future, but there is a real possibility that the Lions could still be looking for one next season.

It will take some time for this offensive line to play as a cohesive unit, at least six weeks, probably longer. There will be struggles and a few bumps on that road. There is little doubt in my mind that once this offensive line begins playing together as a unit that the running game will indeed be improved. Just don’t expect that to happen from week one of the regular season.

One comment on “Lions offensive line faces struggles early

  1. Pingback: Lions offensive scheme could see some changes

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