NFL Draft 2011: Why the Detroit Lions Should Not Draft an Offensive Tackle

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NFL Draft 2011: Why the Detroit Lions Should Not Draft an Offensive Tackle
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Tyron Smith blocking (holding?) for USC quarterback Matt Barkley. And not on his blind side, I might add.

Look far and wide across the internet. There are mock drafts aplenty, and the picks are as random and varied as the whims of Al Davis.

That said, it’s hard to find a mock draft out there that doesn’t send Tyron Smith, the young offensive tackle out of USC, to the Detroit Lions at pick 13.

The reasoning usually goes along the lines of, “The Lions need to draft an offensive tackle to keep Matthew Stafford healthy,” even though they’re talking about drafting an offensive tackle, not a doctor.

But is that really the case? Do the Lions need, first and foremost, to pick up an offensive tackle over other team needs? And was the offensive line really so atrocious as to need a major shakeup?

The statistics say “absolutely not.”

This is a difficult determination for me to make. Exactly two years ago, I was absolutely raging about the idea of taking a young quarterback from Georgia first overall. Oddly enough, the reason why had nothing to do with Stafford himself.

Excerpts from a piece I wrote on April 11, 2009:

“The Detroit Lions drafting Matthew Stafford first overall—or any quarterback—is a recipe to ruin the kid and set the team back another three years in rebuilding.”

“Drafting a quarterback who might throw a tight spiral on plays he doesn’t get his head taken off is not good football sense.”

Offensive Tackle in the first round?

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“Stafford’s strong arm is only going to help Detroit if he’s not using it to stiff-arm rushing defenders.”

You get the idea. At the time, I was heavily advocating addressing the offensive line and other core positions, thinking that any quarterback drafted and thrown into such an undesirable position as rebuilding from 0-16, would end up beaten down and broken, destroyed by a combination of high expectations and opposing defenders.

Sadly, part of my projection was right, but that doesn’t make me right overall. In fact, only the injury on Stafford in the opening week Bears game was the O-line’s fault. The other three were on hits delivered after an extended scramble (against the Jets, Stafford was already on his way down the field when he got tripped up from behind).

So why the sudden change in tune?

Now look, there’s no doubting the fact that Jeff Backus got absolutely destroyed on the fateful play that introduced Stafford’s throwing shoulder to the turf. Julius Peppers jumped the snap and blew by, and Backus completely whiffed on the block. That was a terrible play.

But sometimes good players make terrible plays. Happens to the best of them.

And given the last two seasons of work, I can safely say (unlike in 2009) that while Backus is not “the best of them,” he is a good football player. Sure, he’s merely above-average, aging and in a contract year. But he’s still part of an offensive line that was sixth in the NFL in preventing sacks, and 10th in the league in preventing QB hits.

Really, that one whiffed block on a future Hall of Fame defensive end (whom Backus handled extremely well the rest of the game) was the only blot on what was perhaps the most successful year for a Lions offensive line in the last 20 years.

In addition, although everyone forgot about him, Lions coaches were reportedly very pleased with the progression of fourth-round pick Jason Fox, who could step into a big role in 2011.

Sammie Hill was drafted in the fourth round, as a project out of Stillman College in 2009, and he is now poised for a breakout year. Is there any reason, after working an entire year to build his strength and refine his technique, Fox can’t follow the same path? He is no more unproven in the NFL than any 2011 draft prospect.

And is there some elite, “can’t miss” prospect in this year’s offensive tackle class? Doesn’t it say something about the strength of this bunch that the top left tackle prospect in this year’s draft (Smith) has to be converted from right tackle?

Couldn’t the Lions just ride out Backus’ contract year and take their pick from an almost assuredly stronger class of 2012 offensive tackles? Or maybe Jason Fox is better than everyone thought, and he can actually take over for Backus? Then the Lions don’t need to burn another draft pick at the position at all.

If there is one aspect of the offensive line that needs work for 2011, it is interior run blocking. Guess who’s primarily responsible for that?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Lions fans would like to see more of this in 2011... but one of these guys might need an upgrade, and it's not Stafford.

Hint: It won’t be Tyron Smith.

No, if there is one mainstay on the Lions’ offensive line that needs an upgrade, it’s Dominic Raiola. And I feel bad saying that, because Raiola is one of the guys I like most on the team. You can’t take away the man’s fire. The more his team loses, the more committed he becomes to winning, and he has a very special finger to show you if you don’t believe it.

That being said, Raiola has been using great technique and craftiness to make up for his lack of ideal size for years. That was fine for a while, because he was good at it, and he was a shining beacon of success on an offensive line that was often in shambles elsewhere.

But Raiola, who has played basically his entire career under 300 pounds, has never had the ability to just go out and be a road-grader in the running game.

The man can call out protections like nobody’s business, and there’s no doubt he’s a vocal leader in the locker room, but sometimes an NFL center just needs to go out and push somebody out of the way, and Raiola is not that guy. What he does now is going to get even more difficult as he advances further from age 30 (he’ll be 33 by the end of the 2011 season).

And if the Lions aren’t ready to replace Raiola (and they might not be, Raiola’s leadership will be hard to replace and his contract runs through 2013), maybe the often-injured, rarely effective Stephen Peterman? Regardless, neither player is going to be effectively replaced by drafting an offensive tackle.

The only player getting replaced by drafting an offensive tackle in 2011 would be an offensive tackle: Backus.

And that would be a year too early.

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