Since the Detroit Lions acquired Rob Sims in 2010, they've had a lot of continuity with their starting offensive line. Sims has served as the starting left guard, and Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola have continued to start at left tackle and center. On the right side of the line, Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus have served as the starting guard and tackle.
As already made evident by this offseason, changes are coming to the Lions' starting offensive line next season. Peterman has already been released, indicating that the Lions plan to have a new starting right guard. Raiola restructured his contract on Thursday to stay with the team, but that doesn't mean his starting job is locked down by any means. Also, with Backus potentially considering retirement and Cherilus an unrestricted free agent, the changes may not be limited to the interior offensive line.
Both free agency and the NFL Draft will play a big role in determining what the Lions' starting offensive line looks like when the 2013 season rolls around. Not only could the Lions lose a player like Cherilus, but they could add starting-caliber players as well.
Clearly, a lot has to happen before we get a solid idea of which offensive linemen will be starting in 2013, but let's take a very early look at what the starting offensive line could look like.
Candidates to start: Jeff Backus, Riley Reiff, Jason Fox, draft pick
If Backus decides to return for another season, he will likely retain his starting job. Reiff could certainly make things interesting, but I would be surprised if he won the starting job if Backus is still around. The same goes for Fox, who would really only be in the mix to start at left tackle if Backus retires.
The one thing that could really make things interesting is if the Lions draft somebody like Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher with the fifth overall pick. Both of those guys seem like they could start at left tackle from day one, and drafting another offensive tackle in the first round could make Backus expendable.
Prediction: Backus. I would be pretty surprised if Backus decides to retire. I expect him to play at least one more season, and I expect him to continue to start at left tackle.
Candidates to start: Rob Sims
This is pretty simple. If Sims is healthy, he should be the starting left guard in 2013. He was named the top Lions offensive lineman in 2012, and this is really the one spot on the offensive line that already appears to be locked down.
Candidates to start: Dominic Raiola, Bill Nagy, draft pick
Had Raiola not restructured his contract, he would likely be a free agent right now. Since he did take a pay cut to remain with the Lions, they have some flexibility at center. They certainly could go out and draft a guy like Barrett Jones to take over for Raiola, but they wouldn't necessarily have to immediately transition to a new starter. Raiola's lower salary allows the Lions to keep him around for 2013 and slow down the transition process a bit.
Even if the Lions don't draft a center, Raiola's starting job may not be safe. Nagy can play both center and offensive guard, and I could see him pushing to be the starting center if he focuses on winning that particular job this offseason.
Prediction: Raiola. As much as I would like to see the Lions go in a different direction at center, I expect Raiola to continue to start for one more season. That said, I respect him for taking a pay cut to stick around, as there is now less pressure on the Lions to find his replacement. They do need to start looking for a replacement, but I don't see Raiola actually being replaced until next year.
Candidates to start: Bill Nagy, Rodney Austin, Riley Reiff, Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard, draft pick, free agent
With Peterman out of the picture, this starting job is wide open. Nagy is believed to be the in-house favorite to take over for Peterman, but his experience in the NFL is limited to four games in 2011. Injuries have been an issue, and that is why the Lions were able to claim him off waivers last summer from the Dallas Cowboys in the first place.
If Nagy isn't the answer, another in-house candidate is Austin, who spent last season on the practice squad and was reportedly quite impressive in practice. At the very least, he should make the 53-man roster in 2013, and he could be in the mix to start as well.
If neither Nagy nor Austin wins the starting job, the Lions have several other options. Among them are moving Reiff, Fox or Hilliard inside to guard if none of them are starting at one of the tackle spots. Another option is going out and signing a free agent like Andy Levitre, although a limited amount of cap room could make that difficult. The final option is drafting a guard and hoping he is ready to start from day one. Someone like Barrett Jones, who can play multiple positions, seems like a good fit in that regard.
Prediction: Nagy. I nearly went with Austin just based on how much he has been hyped up, but Nagy has proven in the past that he is good enough to start in the NFL. Whether he can stay healthy is an entirely different story, but Nagy is my early favorite to start at right guard. (This is the prediction I'm least confident in just because it is so wide open.)
Candidates to start: Gosder Cherilus, Riley Reiff, Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard, draft pick
The general consensus is that Cherilus had the best year of his career in 2012, which was good timing for him considering he is set to become a free agent this offseason. I'd imagine the Lions would like to re-sign him, but chances are he will be able to get more money elsewhere.
If Cherilus does indeed depart this offseason, Reiff becomes the favorite to start at right tackle if Backus returns as the starting left tackle. Reiff was essentially the Lions' sixth starter on the offensive line last year, and he seems ready to become a full-time starter.
If something were to happen where Cherilus and Backus do not return and Reiff has to start at left tackle, then you're probably looking at someone like Fox or even Hilliard taking over at right tackle. The Lions could also draft someone to step in at right tackle if Reiff becomes the starting left tackle.
Prediction: Reiff. I do not expect the Lions to re-sign Cherilus. With Backus expected to continue to start at left tackle, I have Reiff entering the starting lineup at right tackle.
The Lions are in an interesting position this offseason after having so much stability with their offensive line the last few years. This year, there could be as many as four new starters depending on how the offseason progresses. When everything settles down, the Lions will probably be looking at only two new starters, but that's still pretty significant. The changes will provide an opportunity for both improvement and regression, although I'm guessing more people will expect improvement based on the struggles the offensive line has had at times in the past.
For me, the NFL Draft will be the most interesting development for the Lions' offensive line. Backus retiring and Cherilus leaving would obviously have a huge impact on the Lions' offensive line, but I sort of feel like Reiff and Fox could take over the starting tackle spots if necessary. What will be more interesting to me is if the Lions spend a high draft pick (first or second round) on an offensive lineman. Drafting somebody like Joeckel, Fisher, Jones or Chance Warmack could really shake things up and push an established starter out of a job. At least until we get to training camp, that is my No. 1 thing to watch.
Before we get to training camp or the draft, of course, is free agency. The Lions need to get a concrete decision from Backus, and Cherilus will have to decide on a team for 2013 before any other significant moves can really be made. Those two things will help shape the Lions' starting offensive line for 2013.
In the meantime, if you had to predict right now, what do you think the starting offensive line will look like for the Lions next season?