(Ed. note: Bumped to the front page.)
This is the first in a series of articles that I will post about the current state of the Lions roster and decisions that they need to make during this offseason. We are going to start by talking about the Lions offensive line. I decided to start here because it is perpetually a topic of strong debate among Lions fans.
During the 2011 season, the Lions featured an offensive line that had:
Left Tackle: Jeff Backus
Left Guard: Rob Sims
Center: Dominic Raiola
Right Guard: Stephen Peterman
Right Tackle: Gosder Cherilus
The backups were Dylan Gandy, Leonard Davis, and Corey Hilliard. The Lions also had Jason Fox and Johnny Culbreath on injured reserve.
The Football Outsiders stats indicate that the Lions running game fails in power running situations about half the time and gets stuffed about 21% of the time. Both of these stats rank near the worst in the NFL and blame is usually on the offensive line for these failures. They are both situations where running backs are getting stopped close to the line of scrimmage where the offensive line is responsible for making holes. I am not going to put much emphasis on the stats on pass blocking since the Lions do that pretty well.
If you look further at the statistics you see the Lions are below average at running the ball across the entire offensive line. The worst run production was outside to the right edge and in the A gaps (between the center and guards). In addition, the Lions ran the ball slightly better behind Stephen Peterman than they did behind Rob Sims. In fact, runs to the right B gap (between right guard and right tackle) were the best yardage for Lions running backs on average.
The runs to the right edge show more than one weakness. At times the right tackle and pulling guards were unable to seal the right end of the line, but the problems were often about defensive players flowing up from the second level as well. That indicates the wide receivers, tight ends and pulling guards are not getting the job done either.
The strange part is that we often saw excellent blocks by Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson on runs to the left. Since the Lions move their receivers around on the field you cannot pin the blame on one of them. It is probably just a fluke that they blocked better to the left side than they did to the right.
One issue in the running game may revolve around pulling guards. I cannot give a definite answer on this because I have to do more research before I can tell for sure. I need to watch how well the guards can get to their blocks, and maintain them when the Lions run a trap play.
The Lions have some decisions to make about the offensive line for the 2012 season. Both Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola are starting to get a bit "long in the tooth" and their playing days are drawing to an end. Neither of them has more than a couple more seasons left as starters. The Lions would be well advised to groom their replacements now.
The process of replacing Jeff Backus has already started. The Lions have used Corey Hilliard to replace Backus in a pinch, but Hilliard seems more suited to play right tackle. Both Jason Fox and Johnny Culbreath are on the roster for next season and they might represent the future at left tackle.
When Backus suffered a pectoral muscle injury during last offseason it gave Jason Fox a chance to play. The coaches were very impressed with the progress that Fox was making during preseason cap before he also went down with an injury. That gave Johnny Culbreath a very short-term chance to play before he was also put on injured reserve due to an undisclosed medical condition that the Lions said will not keep Culbreath from playing in the long term.
The most immediate prospect to replace Backus would be Jason Fox. There is no question that he has the talent to be a starter in the NFL. The only question is whether he can stay healthy. Fox has been plagued by injuries during his football career. He had a dislocated elbow and injuries to his left knee and hamstring in college. Then he had injuries to his foot and right knee with the Lions. If Fox is to be a factor in the Lions' plans he will have to stay healthy this season. Another season-ending injury to Fox is likely to compel the Lions to move on to another player for the future. He will get this one last shot to put his injuries behind him, though.
Johnny Culbreath is an unknown factor. We didn't know much about him when he was placed on injured reserve. The nature of his medical condition is also a mystery. The situation was further complicated when Culbreath was arrested for possession of marijuana in January. Culbreath plead guilty and paid a $412 fine to close the case. Since he was a seventh-round draft pick the odds against Culbreath becoming a starter were already long. The medical condition and off-field issues make the odds even longer.
Jeff Backus is a free agent in an offseason where the Lions are tight against the salary cap. Since Backus was born in Michigan and has played football here his entire life, it is doubtful that he will go anyplace else to finish his career. The real danger is whether the Lions can pay Backus enough for him to feel it is worthwhile to continue getting injured by playing. It is likely that Backus will return to the Lions at a reduced salary, but it is not certain.
Another position of concern is center. Dominic Raiola is under contract for 2012, but he is not getting any younger. While Dom had a bit of a resurgence in 2012 it is going to be increasingly difficult for him to maintain his level of play. When that level of play places him near the bottom of all run blocking centers in the NFL, that is a serious problem.
It is clear that the Lions need to acquire a player to back up Raiola and groom him to take over the position during the next couple of seasons. The Lions could get an immediate benefit by drafting a young center that is an excellent run blocker. Pete Konz, Ben Jones, and Mike Brewster are all possibilities.
Since the center is responsible for making all of the line blocking calls, it is not an easy transition to make for a young player. It will take some time to learn the system and the tendencies of NFL opponents in order for a new center to be as effective as Raiola in this regard. It is also possible to allow Matthew Stafford to make the line blocking calls while a younger player gains some experience at playing the position.
The only other immediate issue on the offensive line is finding a backup for the guard positions. Leonard Davis may be an option for one more season if he is willing to play at a salary the Lions can afford. If he is not, the Lions will need to draft a player that can play at both guard positions. Somebody like Cordy Glenn of Georgia would fit the bill nicely.
It is very important that the Lions have a good player behind Stephen Peterman to push him. Peterman seems to be a guy that needs competition for his playing spot as motivation to play his best.
Rob Sims is a fixture at left guard for now and Gosder Cherilus seems to have locked down the right tackle spot. They are both under contract for next season.
If the Lions want to compete for a playoff spot over the next several seasons it is important to settle these issues on the offensive line. I am pretty sure that Martin Mayhew knows that better than I do and it will be interesting to see how the Lions will resolve them.