About a month ago, I said the Detroit Lions did not need to spend a high draft pick on an offensive tackle.
About two weeks ago, the Lions’ front office agreed with me, choosing instead to take a low-risk chance on Johnny Culbreath, a small-school project tackle.
It has been a no-brainer to most. The Lions need Matthew Stafford to play; he has suffered four injuries in two seasons and played less than a single season’s slate of games.
Looking at just those facts, the Lions need to upgrade the offensive line. In particular, most were looking for an upgrade from left tackle Jeff Backus, to whom Julius Peppers gave the blow-by on the way to separating Stafford’s AC joint last September.
For many, that was the last straw for any tolerance with Backus, who has more or less epitomized the Lions’ mediocrity over the last decade. That’s really too bad since he was one of the best left tackles in football for the remaining 15-and-a-half games, leading a top-10 pass-protection unit on the season.
For that matter, he was among the league’s best in 2009 too. But inserting the reliable Rob Sims at left guard in 2010 (as opposed to the “flavor of the week” method in 2009) let Backus take it to the next level.
Now Backus is 33 years old. He’ll be 34 by the midpoint of the season, and he’s entering a contract year. So it isn’t as though the Lions are sticking with him as the answer for the next 10 years. He’s just playing out his contract.
While he does that, the Lions will be auditioning Jason Fox, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who was drafted to be Backus’ long-term replacement.
Many fans have forgotten about Fox because he had no impact on the team last year. He spent nearly all of 2010 inactive, only seeing limited action at right tackle in the last game of the season. It’s tempting to assume from this that he wasn’t any good, and that’s why he never saw game action.
Actually, Fox came into the 2010 season battling a lingering knee injury. With iron man Backus at one tackle position and Gosder Cherilus/Corey Hilliard providing adequate depth at the other, there was no reason to rush him into action.
So the Lions took 2010 as a developmental year for Fox. He learned the playbook, made a full recovery from his injury and spent time in the weight room to build the NFL-level strength he’ll need for 2011.
Depending on how healthy Cherilus is going into 2011, Fox could be the favorite to take over as the starting right tackle, and if he performs well there, he could become the long-term solution at left tackle after Backus’ contract is up.
Funny, isn’t that what lots of people wanted to do with Tyron Smith after drafting him 13th overall?
See, if Fox works out, he solves that problem without the use of a first-round draft pick. This is what good football teams are able to do: develop late-round picks into effective starters.
Of course, if Fox was poised to take over that role and the Lions drafted Anthony Castonzo, Fox would just be looking at another year of inactivity. Eventually, he would be the Lions’ offensive line equivalent of Drew Stanton.
Instead, the Lions are actually going to give the guy they drafted a chance to develop and play a meaningful role on the team. Their timing couldn’t be better because they still have Backus ready to go for another 16 games.
If Fox goes out there next season and looks like a lost puppy in rush hour traffic, the Lions have their answer: They need to draft a new franchise left tackle next April. In the meantime, they have the steady veteran holding down the fort. True franchise left tackles can plug in from day one and learn on the job.
That means if Backus walks and Fox busts, they can still take Backus’ replacement next year and make it a fairly seamless transition.
So that leaves the interior line. Rob Sims made the entire line better in 2010, especially Backus. That said, Stephen Peterman is decent when he’s healthy (which is about as often as Stafford), and Dominic Raiola has been just barely good enough for years. Isn’t it about time for replacements there?
Probably. But Raiola and Peterman are both signed through 2013, and both are making a starter’s salary. Peterman is the team’s best run-blocker when healthy, and Raiola is the vocal and technical leader of the offensive line.
It’s hard to replace those positions in those circumstances, when one has extended history with the team and the other has really been unable to show his best stuff.
Ultimately, the Lions are going to need replacements all along the offensive line sooner or later. The only 2010 starters with a possible long-term shot are Sims and Cherilus. Peterman is pushing 30; Backus and Raiola are well past it.
But contrary to popular belief—and this is key—they’re okay for now. The Lions of the past would overcorrect to a perceived need (see Matt Millen, wide receivers), abandoning their plans, players and coaches before allowing continuity to set in.
The 2010 offensive line was much better than the 2009 version, and only one player was different. That player (Sims) was a former fourth-round pick.
So with the inclusion of another new player (Fox), also a fourth-round pick, who’s to say the 2011 line can’t be as improved over 2010 as the 2010 line was over 2009?