This is the second article in the series. Previously, I presented a reasonable guess at what the depth chart looks like today. Click here for a useful reference for the discussion that follows.
I broke down the quarterbacks and centers together last time, and wanted to take a peek at the offensive guards and tackles this time out. The problem with this approach is that the tackles and guards are in a state of transition. The “thumbnail” treatment wouldn’t properly address the players vying for roster spots in the detail that it deserves.
OK, gang, let’s continue preparing for training camp!
Unless it’s the entertaining one-on-one drill featuring the receivers versus the defensive backs, the football is the last thing that I watch. So, what can we learn from eyeing the offensive linemen in an environment of limited contact?
First, we have to throw out everything we watched on film from previous seasons, and likewise discard projections based on talent alone. The offensive line must work like a chorus of dancing bears. Every step of each member is choreographed uniquely to every play in the playbook.
Becoming proficient in timing and techniques is difficult enough when one starter on the unit is replaced. This problem is compounded for a Lions offensive line replacing three starters.
The current crop of Lions’ dancing bears has played precisely zero snaps as a unit.
Let that sink in for a moment while reeling in your expectations. This Lions offensive unit will experience a learning curve along with some growing pains that is typically the rule, rather than the exception.
Although the Lions’ offensive line has some talented individuals, and some with experience, it’s about bringing the unit together efficiently. To this end, I wonder if the Lions’ coaching staff will simplify the sophisticated man-power blocking scheme they employ?
OK, I’m done casting wet blankets on your expectations. Well, almost, but the worst is over. Let’s dive into the offensive tackle positions and the players who will compete for those four precious roster spots.
There was never a question after the retirement of left tackle Jeff Backus that Riley Reiff would be the presumptive starter, was there?
Reiff’s brief experience at left tackle last season (163 of 336 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus Premium Stats) gave us ample evidence of what we can expect: a long, agile, patient blind-side blocker who works well on an island.
Reiff’s growth as a professional should be evident after having an offseason of preparation. He’ll learn that with certain rushers, he can’t wait for the play to come to him, which he seems to prefer. This year, we can expect him to engage defenders a second or so sooner.
For Reiff, maintaining engagement with defenders for that critical two seconds will be his biggest challenge.
In an injury plagued three-year career, Fox has played a grand total of 26 snaps. He was healthy—finally—in 2012. I’ve watched his development with great interest, and his improvement in the nuances of different techniques required by a left, or right tackle is arguably the most pronounced of any other player on the roster.
In a word, Fox is ready.
One of my favorite all-time training camp periods is the rare full-contact mano-e-mano matchups of offensive versus defensive linemen. Last year, Fox looked like he was NFL ready at either tackle position, holding his own with an attendant mean streak that had coaches repeatedly breaking up fights.
While his agility doesn’t match that of Reiff, Fox has proven himself ready to fill in at left tackle. He will ably compete for the starting right tackle assignment if he can prove his durability.
The only question remaining is whether Fox’s value as a backup at both tackle positions trumps his obvious talent advantage as a road-grating mauler.
Hilliard has been the quintessential soldier over his four-year career. Seeing spot duty at both tackle positions, as well as playing right guard, Hilliard is nothing flashy from any technical aspect, but very steady wherever he’s been plugged in.
Will Hilliard seize his golden opportunity for a starting role this year?
Good question, and it largely depends upon whether we’ve seen his ceiling talent-wise. With an edge over Fox in experience, Hilliard will have the fight of his life in a training camp competition that will be one of the more interesting in memory.
Take a look at Waddle’s YouTube video. Then, cue up videos for Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher, or Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel. The talent gap is enormous from the standpoints of athleticism and technique, isn’t it?
Well, this here is the NFL. As rookie offensive tackles go, Waddle would be a decent project—as a right guard.
I want to watch Waddle in agility drills, where he has to show substantial improvement over what we see on tape from Texas Tech games.
The Lions should waste no time moving Waddle inside, where he has his best shot at proving worthy of a spot on the practice squad. There is the possibility that Waddle can develop into a tackle-guard hybrid, but the mammoth coaching investment that will have to be made in Waddle will test the Lions’ resolve.
The Holt, Mich., native and Ball State four-year starter lacks the prototypical size of an NFL tackle at 6‘4“. Considering the lack of quality depth on the roster, Holtz does have an outside chance of making the practice squad.
Watching film on Holtz, I had the distinct impression that he’d be better suited as a LG/C prospect. Considering the roster depth, the Lions would be better served by kicking Holtz inside.
It should be mentioned that during the offseason, Holtz is a probation officer. In this respect, Holtz may be a good fit for a Lions team on its best behavior.
Obviously, there’s some uncertainty surrounding the ability of Reiff, Fox, and Hilliard to perform at a high level out of the gate. All will be beaten like a rented mule on occasion. Call it a right of passage.
The nice blend of experience (Hilliard) and talent (Fox) will make for a decision that’s too close to call. it will also provide we fans with the first spirited competition for a starting tackle role in many years.
A key question that will be answered sooner rather than later is to what extent the coaching staff will simplify the blocking schemes.
Since the Lions will carry four tackles on the roster, look for the addition of a veteran, or two, before they break camp via trade, or waiver claim. The need for depth at offensive tackle can’t be understated. Especially with a couple of undrafted rookies that look more like interior linemen.
Next Up: The Interior Linemen