With the overnight news that Jeff Backus, the Lions' longtime left tackle, has retired after 12 years with the team, the Lions' first-round tactics may have changed dramatically. While for a long time people have believed that Martin Mayhew would target Dee Milliner or one of the top pass rushers to improve the Lions defense, with two vacancies on each end of the offensive line and only one in-house long-term option to plug them, the Lions suddenly have a big need at left tackle.
In writing this, I am assuming that Riley Reiff will be converted into a right tackle. He has the build and mentality that befit that side of the line more, and he was not very good filling in at left tackle last season. However, he played well at right tackle.
As well as the Lions having a burning need for a blindside protector, two of the three best players in this draft are left tackles.
Luke Joeckel is pretty much the consensus best prospect available after a college career at Texas A&M, where he showed he can be a force in pass protection and as a run blocker. Also, Eric Fisher has flown up draft boards this offseason after dominating inferior competition at Central Michigan. He is a brilliant athlete who is also technically sound. At the moment, he projects to be the best pass protector in this draft and on a similar level to Matt Kalil from the 2012 draft. He is my third best prospect for this season, and any serious draftnik will have him in their top five prospects.
While it seems certain that Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher will not fall to Detroit at fifth overall in the draft, there is a good chance that one of them will. While the Kansas City Chiefs are certainly looking at a tackle after cutting Eric Winston and franchise-tagging Brandon Albert, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders already have young, high-quality starters locked in at left tackle in Eugene Monroe and Jared Veldheer, respectively, and have plenty of holes elsewhere in the roster. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that they would take a left tackle in the top five.
Who should the Lions take with their first-round pick?
Finally, while the Philadelphia Eagles do have a big need at left tackle, they are currently making the switch to a 3-4 defense and need to find the right playmakers at outside linebacker, defensive end and nose tackle to help field a decent defense this year. They also have Jason Peters, an All-Pro left tackle from 2011, returning from injury. And with Dion Jordan likely to be on the board, former Oregon coach Chip Kelly will probably take his old guy who is close to the perfect rush linebacker prospect. Therefore, I believe the odds are better that one of the top two left tackles will fall to the Lions than not.
Even if both are snapped up prior to the Lions' pick, there is still one more left tackle available who ranks in the top 10 of most big boards and combines a high ceiling with a high basement at a position of need for the Lions. He is Lane Johnson from Oklahoma, and his great senior year at college—as well as dominating at the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine—has made him another safe pick who should become a very good left tackle in the NFL.
However, the Lions would not need to take him with the fifth pick of the draft.
Lane Johnson is probably going to be taken around the tenth pick of the draft, since he will certainly not fall past the San Diego Chargers at eleven. However, it would not surprise me if the Cleveland Browns, who are picking right after the Lions, went after Dee Milliner after making a splash on the defensive line in free agency. Therefore, any team who falls in love with Milliner would likely look to move up to the Lions' spot to make sure they got him. One such team could be the Buffalo Bills, who, despite taking Stephon Gilmore last season, still have a massive need at cornerback They also lack other pressing needs except under center. The Bills might look to trade up and leapfrog the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are reported to be taking interest in this years' quarterback class. and if the Bills want Geno Smith, they would probably have to swap their first- and second-round picks to move up to the fifth selection.
Even if no trade partner appeared for the Lions, taking Lane Johnson with the fifth pick would not be a bad move at all.
In conclusion, I believe that the direction that free agency has taken means that the Lions should definitely look to add one of the three stud left tackles in this draft. It should be the only time for the next 5-10 years that the Lions have this high a pick, and left tackle is one of the few positions where true star players can never be found much outside the top ten with regularity. To me at least, it just makes sense, because the Lions can always add defensive ends in the second and third round.