UPDATE: Corey Hilliard was tendered at the original-round level on Monday, March 12.
Although he is set to become a free agent on Tuesday, the expectation is for Jeff Backus to be back as the starting left tackle of the Detroit Lions. While he has dealt with injury issues in the last year, including in the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, the Lions seem to think that Backus still has at least another couple of years left. He has played pretty well the last couple of years, and with nobody on the roster ready to step in as the starting left tackle, Backus is really the Lions' best option.
A big reason why nobody behind Backus is ready to step in as the starter at left tackle is because Jason Fox hasn't been able to stay healthy. He showed some promise last preseason when Backus was out, but then he broke his foot in training camp and had to have season-ending knee surgery during the season. Injuries have hampered his career (in college and the NFL), preventing him from getting a chance to play and preventing the coaches from seeing what kind of player he could be long term.
On the right side of the line is starter Gosder Cherilus, who should be back for the final year of his contract. Cherilus had an up-and-down 2011 season. At times he played well, especially later in the season. At the start of the season, he was actually benched after taking a dumb personal foul penalty in Week 1. Whether or not the Lions view Cherilus as the starter at right tackle for years to come could be based on how he performs in 2012.
There are two other tackles who were on the roster last season. One of them is Corey Hilliard, who replaced Cherilus when the benching happened. Hilliard is a restricted free agent, and right now it's unclear if the Lions plan to extend a tendered contract offer. The other offensive tackle from last season is Johnny Culbreath. He spent the entire season on injured reserve because of an unspecified medical condition.
Need going forward?
The last few years, the Lions have been able to avoid addressing the need to find a future left tackle. Now, however, is the time to start planning ahead. Assuming Backus re-signs, the Lions will probably have another year or two before a change needs to be made at left tackle. Whether they select an offensive tackle in the first round or try to find another hidden gem in a later round, it's necessary to start grooming his replacement.
Obviously, the hope would be that somebody like Fox steps it up and is able to stay healthy. The Lions could then groom him to be Backus' replacement. I doubt they will put all their eggs in that basket, though, so I do expect an offensive tackle to be drafted this year. Whether or not the Lions will spend a first-round pick on a lineman remains to be seen, but there is a definitely a need for more depth and more talent at this position.