Every year hope springs upon us as our gridiron heroes take the field for training camp. This year has been more hopeful than most for the Detroit Lions. Martin Mayhew has filled in many of the holes that the Lions had on their roster and the team looks more complete than it has been for at least a decade.
The problem with hope is that reality can overtake our enthusiasm as cracks appear in the foundation that we believed to be solid. The biggest crack in the Lions foundation so far this season is at the offensive tackle positions. Injuries have caused the depth at offensive tackle to become much thinner than hoped. Jeff Backus partially tore a pectoral muscle some time during the summer and Gosder Cherilus is still recovering from microfracture surgery. Now we find out that Jason Fox has hurt his foot during practice on Saturday.
We know the injury to Jeff Backus took place sometime between June 10th and July 20th. Backus attended the final player run workouts that concluded on June 10th. At that time he appeared to be participating in all of the drills. On July 20th, Dave Birkett broke the news about Backus' injury in the Detroit Free Press.
It is difficult to estimate the recovery time for Backus, but it is encouraging that Backus did not need surgery. Another positive is that Backus does not have his arm in a sling. If he doesn't need a sling then the doctors do not see a need to prevent his arm from putting stress on his pectoral muscle. That is a strong indication that the tear is fairly minor and may require only a short recovery time. Backus might be back in action before the preseason is over, or very early in the regular season.
The injury to Cherilus is harder to predict. Microfracture knee surgery, as Cherilus had, is notoriously unpredictable both in terms of recovery time and recovery amount. It may be possible that Cherilus will never be able to play football again. It may also be possible that he will recover completely in a short time. We will find out fairly soon. Cherilus tried to participate in drills during Saturday's practice but he had to stop
"He’s tight up in his hips and he was unable to do it," said Head Coach Jim Schwartz. "We have an off day tomorrow, (trying to) get him moving a little bit today. Hopefully get him back on Monday full speed."
The good news is that we can get a read on Cherilus over the next week and see how he responds. The bad news is that anything could happen. Certainly, the Lions are looking for him to make progress in his recovery and be ready to start the regular season. Having Cherilus return to the lineup would be a substantial boost to the depth available at the position. It would free Corey Hilliard to try filling in at left tackle.
The injury to Jason Fox was a real setback since he was slated to fill in for Backus. Fox left practice in a walking boot with what is reported to be a mid-foot injury. Jim Schwartz said...
"Jason was getting a lot of reps out there and was doing very well. Hopefully we get good news on him and it won’t be too long."
The real impact of these injuries on the Lions is yet to be determined. It is still possible that the impact will be minor. Jason Fox could have a minor injury and return quickly, Jeff Backus could recover in time for the regular season, and Gosder Cherilus could respond well when he starts practicing. This would allow the Lions to start the regular season with all of their offensive tackles in place and the preseason injuries will quickly be forgotten.
With Fox going down the left tackle position becomes a real question for the Lions in the short term. The players that will have to step up and fill the void for now are Corey Hilliard, Tony Ugoh, and Johnny Culbreath.
Corey Hilliard played some left tackle for the Lions in the 2010 preseason and looked over-matched. If he is going to be the answer to fill in for Backus and Fox, he will have to raise his game over what we saw in 2010. Hilliard does have the ability to serve as a right tackle. He filled in on thw right side capably when Cherilus went on injured reserve last season.
Tony Ugoh is a bit of a wild card. He has pro experience as a starting left tackle with the Colts, who drafted him in the second round. The Colts were not satisfied with his play and he was eventually replaced by Charlie Johnson.
When Ugoh was released by the Colts, he was waived/injured. Colts coach, Jim Caldwell, indicated that an injury in training camp was a big factor in the release. Ugoh was signed by the Lions several months later, when concerns over the knee injury to Gosder Cherilus caused the Lions to seek insurance at the position. Ugoh was never put on the active roster during the 2010 season for the Lions.
This is an opportunity for Tony Ugoh to make an impression on the coaches and resurrect his career. It was pobably the only way he was going to get a significant number or reps, so it is up to Ugoh to raise his game and make the coaches believe he can do the job. Since he played as a starting left tackle before he has some idea what it requires. It would be a huge boost to the Lions offensive line if Ugoh could rise to the occasion.
Johnny Culbreath is suffering from the same problems that all of the rookies are experiencing this season. They did not get a rookie camp or OTAs to help learn the Lions system. So they are struggling to play catch-up now. Culbreath was considered to be a long term project when the Lions drafted him and nothing has happened in camp to change that. If Culbreath is going to step up and take a starting position it would be an unlikely and meteoric rise for the rookie.
Given the situation that the Lions are in, we could see another player brought in to compete at the offensive tackle positions. The problem is that a quality free agent like Jared Gaither would cost the Lions a substantial salary offer to get them under contract. In order to compensate, the Lions would be forced to cut some salaries in order to fit Gaither under the cap. That means that players would have to be released that the Lions probably prefer to keep.
It is doubtful that Martin Mayhew is willing to take drastic steps to shore up the offensive tackles until the Lions know more about the recovery schedule of their injured players. The Lions will not sign an expensive free agent, or make a trade, unless they are going to be without both Backus and Fox well into the regular season.
For now it is going to be a waiting game for the Lions and their fans. It is going to be uncomfortable and full of angst and anticipation. Mayhew has a track record as a patient man and he will not make a panic move. He will wait until he has the information to determine how the injuries will impact the regular season. Until then everybody will just be keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best.