One player on the Detroit Lions roster who has been consistently panned in the last few years and blamed for the offensive line's poor play is Gosder Cherilus, and this has to be the main reason why almost all Lions fans are unanimous in not wanting him re-signed despite his pedigree and age (he is only 28).
However, I strongly disagree, and think that along with Chris Houston he is one of the most important offseason targets.
This is, of course, mainly due to his level of play this season. Gosder Cherilus has always passed the eye test as a right tackle, but his focus and technique has always let him down. However, in 2012 Cherilus turned the corner, which led to him being one of the elite right tackles in the NFL, especially when it comes to pass blocking.
According to Pro Football Focus, the best right tackle in the league in 2012 was Andre Smith (who is also a free agent this offseason) who received a plus-26.9 grade.
Cherilus's plus-26.3 is almost exactly the same and reflects how well he played this season. Admittedly, Cherilus earned most of this as a pass protector, but his run-blocking was still competent. And regardless, in the Lions offense a premium must be placed on pass protection as that is most of what the Lions do.
Some people may claim that Cherilus's sudden increase in performance is indicative of a contract-year performance. However, this is simply the way that the NFL works, and if teams did not re-sign players based on the belief that they played better than normal for a bigger contract, rosters would be empty. The fact is that Cherilus is an elite player in his position, and the Lions should re-sign him because of that alone.
For those who need more convincing, Cherilus is only 28 years old. This means that he should still have another five or six years of prime play due to the slow aging curve of offensive tackles. Therefore, if the Lions bring him back for the sort of five- or six-year contract that he will be looking for on the free market, they should not end up pulling a Vanden Bosch and paying him big bucks for terrible play late in his career. In fact, Cherilus may even end up being a better player in a few years time than he is now.
Also, the Lions have very little long-term depth at the right tackle position, which would make letting go of Cherilus all the more questionable. Some Lions fans will disagree with this premise, as they will claim that Riley Reiff could step in and be just as good as Cherilus at right tackle. However, Jeff Backus has one year left on his contract, and he will certainly not be resigned again.
If Cherilus is released now, then in 2014 the Lions will once again be stuck without a good right tackle, as Reiff would shift to left tackle to replace Backus, likely leaving a gap on the right side. After years of incompetent offensive line play, Martin Mayhew has built a top-10 unit who are elite in pass protection.
Why then, when an old achilles heel of the squad is fixed, would you not re-sign the most important piece in its future success? With Cherlius re-signed for the foreseeable future, the Lions would have a reliable bookend of tackles to keep Matthew Stafford upright.
The final and often overlooked reason why Cherilus is a key re-signing is the positional value of a right tackle, which in the modern NFL is just as high as a left tackle. It used to be that all the best edge rushers rushed from the quarterback's blind side so that he could not see them coming and avoid the sack. This made elite left tackles very important.
However, with modern offenses that prioritize quick passes, often the more dangerous pressure is the sort that comes from the open side of the offensive line so that it hurries the quarterback's internal clock and leads to worse decisions and disrupted timing for the offense.
This means that now a good pass protecting right tackle is just as important as a blind-side protector. Also keep in mind that many of the best young pass-rushers are operating from the right at least as much as from the left.
Defensive coordinators are more willing to move their star pass-rushers around to find favorable matchups these days, and six of the 10 most prolific edge rushers worked against right tackles most of the time, including Von Miller and Cameron Wake. Therefore, a right tackle like Cherilus will become essential in the NFL soon.
In conclusion, the Lions need to try their hardest to bring back Cherilus. He is an elite player in an important position who has only just reached his prime and will not be hugely expensive because of his history of poor play.
While there is a risk that he simply performed for his contract year, Martin Mayhew should overlook this as the potential risks of losing an All-Pro calibre right tackle would be far worse, especially since the Lions should be able to create a contract that gives them the flexibility to release Cherilus cheaply and early in his new contract if he turns into the old Cherilus again.