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A 'Tuff' look at the Lions offense going into the draft

Now that free agency is well underway, it is possible to take a look at where the Detroit Lions roster stands. So let's look "under the hood" to peek at the engine that makes the Lions go -- their offense.


Going into camp before the 2012 NFL season, most Detroit Lions fans were pretty satisfied with where the offense was going. The Lions had a quarterback coming off a 5,000-yard season and a very good performance in the stretch run. Calvin Johnson was putting up big numbers with a stable of talented receivers behind him. We were looking forward to Jahvid Best returning to make the running game explosive. Mikel Leshoure was going to be an impact running threat that could make the tough yards. A proven offensive line was returning all of the starters for another season. We thought the Lions offense was solid in every respect. What a difference a year makes.

Instead of seeing big results, we watched the Lions offense struggle during the 2012 season. They rarely achieved the kind of dominant performances we saw from them in the last half of the 2011 season. Matthew Stafford was inconsistent. Calvin Johnson wasn't catching touchdowns. The wide receiver depth crumbled due to injury and idiocy. Jahvid Best never returned. Mikel Leshoure was not an impact running back. The offensive line is now missing three starters from last season. It has been a very bad year for the Lions offense. Clearly, the Lions front office was going to have to make some moves when free agency began.

While Stafford struggled at times in 2012, it wasn't completely his fault. The lack of a credible running game allowed defenses to cheat into heavy pass coverage schemes. The Lions offense saw an awful lot of defensive formations with six or seven men in the box to play run defense. That made nickel formations in the secondary commonplace. In the process, defenses were able to triple-cover Johnson or double-cover two receivers. Usually the offense just saw a lot of tight zones as a result of the extra bodies in the secondary.

I am not saying that Stafford did not have some issues during the 2012 season, because he did. I am not going to get into that in this article, because this is a roster review, not a breakdown of Stafford's game. As far as the roster is concerned, the quarterback position is set. Stafford is the starter, Shaun Hill is the backup and Kellen Moore provides depth.

The only major move during free agency on the offensive side of the ball was signing Reggie Bush. By adding Bush, the Lions fill the void that was left with the absence of Best. Bush is the type of running back that can make a player miss with a good move, then quickly accelerate into open space for a large gain. In 2012, the Lions were dead last in the NFL for runs of 20 yards or more. That will not be the case in 2013. If teams insist on keeping only six players in the box to play run defense, then Bush will make them pay with his speed.

The Lions running back situation looks solid for 2013 with Bush providing the flash to complement the bash of Leshoure and Joique Bell. There is a small chance that Best could return, but I am not holding my breath. This group should be very effective in practically any situation.

One place where the Lions still have a hole is in the wide receiver corps. Johnson is the best there is, but after that the situation is more uncertain. Nate Burleson should be ready for training camp, and he will likely fill the No. 2 receiver spot. Ryan Broyles appears to be coming along nicely, and he could very well be ready to play before the regular season opens. Kassim Osgood should also make the team, but he will be a special teams ace that sees very little time in the offense.

All of that means that there is only one spot to fill in the receiver corps, and the Lions already have a gaggle of players to try for it. At last count there were 14 receivers on the roster. Some of those receivers have a legitimate chance to be worthy of a WR4 spot. I give the edge to Patrick Edwards and Kris Durham. The Lions gave up a draft pick for Mike Thomas, so he will also get a chance to lock down that last receiver spot.

All of this has come together to explain why the Lions didn't push for a wide receiver in free agency. If the Lions add to the army of receivers they already have, it is likely to be a mid or late round draft pick. I expect this spot to go to a younger player that needs some development. It is better to develop a player that can be more valuable down the road than to let a veteran warm the bench.

The offensive line is going to be an adventure. The absence of Jeff Backus, Gosder Cherilus and Stephen Peterman will cause the unit to have some problems while the replacements get used to each other. It is very difficult to turn over 60 percent of your offensive line and have them play well in the first several games. We will have to be patient with the offensive line in 2013.

Riley Reiff and Jason Fox are likely to step into starting roles. The only question is which positions they will play. Reiff and Fox can play both tackle positions, as well as guard. Given the skills they possess, I would not be surprised to see Fox at left tackle and Reiff at right tackle. Reiff tends to be a stronger run blocker, which would be more useful on the right side of the line. Fox has better feet, which implies he would be better on the left. Of course, the Lions could draft an offensive tackle with the No. 5 pick, and that would change everything.

The guard position that became available when Peterman was released is likely to be filled by Rodney Austin or Bill Nagy. We have heard good things about both of them, but we won't really be able to tell much until we see them in action during the preseason. Nagy has a few games of tape out there from when he was with the Dallas Cowboys, but Austin has almost no video at all. If the Lions draft an offensive tackle at pick No. 5, we may see Reiff or Fox join this competition as well.

Center is going to be a fight between Dominic Raiola and Nagy. I can also envision a draft pick being spent on a guy who can play both center and guard (like Barrett Jones or Travis Frederick). If that happens, then this competition will become hot very quickly.

There is certainly a lot of potential for draft picks to be spent on the offensive line. If the Lions can get either Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher at No. 5, I am almost certain they take him. If both of them are gone, then almost anything can happen, but I still expect at least one offensive lineman to get drafted by the Lions, and possibly two.

All that is left to talk about is the tight end position. The Lions have kept Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Will Heller for the last three seasons. Heller is a free agent, and the Lions do not seem to be in any hurry to sign him. The Lions could bring back Heller, but it is just as likely that they will keep somebody like Nathan Overbay instead. There is also a chance Shaun Chapas could get this last tight end spot.

As you can see, the free agency period hasn't filled many of the holes on offense, but it has added a critical piece in Bush. We can expect that as many as three draft picks will be spent on the offense this year, and they will probably be used on offensive linemen or wide receivers, with tight end being an unlikely, but possible, value pick.

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