There was quite a bit of turnover in the starting lineup for the Detroit Lions' offensive line last year. Not only did they lose left tackle Jeff Backus to retirement, but right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency.
With three new starters, there was a lot of concern over how the offensive line was going to perform in 2013, but it fared quite well. Actually, it fared quite well despite having three different starters at right tackle over the course of the season. The Lions opened the season with Jason Fox winning the starting job, but he was replaced by Corey Hilliard after an injury. Later, undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle was forced into action, and he secured the right tackle job going forward.
This year, Waddle is back as the starting right tackle. Also back are left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Larry Warford, who were new to the starting lineup last season. They are joined by veteran left guard Rob Sims and veteran center Dominic Raiola to form the following starting lineup (each player's age as of the start of the 2014 season is listed in parentheses):
LT Reiff (25) | LG Sims (30) | C Raiola (35) | RG Warford (23) | RT Waddle (23)
There's a lot of youth on the right side of the line, and over at left tackle, Reiff is only entering his third season in the NFL. At left guard and center, this could be it for Sims and Raiola. Sims is entering the final year of his contract with the Lions, and Raiola is nearing the end of his career. It's possible that Raiola could come back on another one-year deal and finish his career in 2015, but with the Lions spending a third-round pick on center Travis Swanson, it's a sign that his time in the NFL is beginning to wind down.
Looking ahead to 2015 and beyond, let's assume that Raiola retires after this coming season. Let's also assume that instead of re-signing Sims, who has a cap hit of $3.775 million this year, they simply let him walk. This would leave the Lions with openings at left guard and center, and it could lead to a 2015 lineup that includes Rodney Austin and Swanson (each player's age as of the start of the 2015 season is listed in parentheses):
LT Reiff (26) | LG Austin (26) | C Swanson (24) | RG Warford (24) | RT Waddle (24)
A lot could obviously change from now to the 2015 season, but Austin and Swanson are the top candidates to take over for Sims and Raiola. Austin spent the 2012 season and part of 2013 on the practice squad before being signed to the Lions' active roster last season, and Swanson, as mentioned, was just picked in the third round. It remains to be seen if these two players will be ready to make the jump to the starting lineup next year, but it's possible that the Lions' future starting offensive line is already in place on their roster.
As for Reiff, Warford and Waddle, they are all under contract through at least 2015. The Lions will have to make a decision on a fifth-year option for Reiff before next year's draft (just like they did when they declined a fifth season for Nick Fairley this year), but he's under contract for at least two more seasons. The same goes for Waddle, who is under contract through 2015 and will be a restricted free agent in 2016. That's also the situation that Austin is in, and Warford is already signed through 2016.
In addition to these guys, the Lions have Corey Hilliard, Cornelius Lucas, J.B. Shugarts and former tight end Michael Williams at offensive tackle and D.J. Morrell, Alex Bullard, A.J. Dalton and Darren Keyton at offensive guard and center. Hilliard is entering the final season of his contract with the Lions, and the other players are mainly camp bodies. Lucas has already been talked about as this year's Waddle, so he looks like a real candidate to be one of the backups at tackle with Hilliard, but the others will likely be let go during the roster cuts this summer.
In any case, the Lions are set up pretty nicely on the O-line going forward. They are quite young at three of the starting spots, and all of those players are under team control through at least 2015. What's more, one player is signed through 2016, another has a team option for 2016 and the other could be easily retained as a restricted free agent in 2016. And with a new draft pick at center and another young guy who they have been developing for a couple years now at left guard, the Lions could potentially have a pretty simple transition if those two starting spots open up in 2015.
Again, a lot could happen over the course of the next year that could alter the outlook of the offensive line in 2015. However, after a strong season last year and with all five starters back this year, the 2014 offensive line is poised to be one of this team's strengths. For 2015, it's always possible that the Lions could be looking at signing a free agent or spending another draft pick to fill a need on the O-line, but at the very least, there are internal candidates who could be ready to start. That's a sign of how strong this position group is as a whole, and it's a sign of how far the offensive line has come since being considered one of the Lions' biggest question marks in training camp last year.