When Stephen Peterman was released, I felt like the entirety of the Lions fandom let out a collective sigh of relief. The ability to subtract countless penalties, stupid plays, poor blocks, etc. from the offensive line looked to me like a great opportunity. For all of the management regime’s talk about continuity on the offensive line and how important it is, my philosophy had always been that continuity is great, but not with bad players. Needless to say, I was pretty pleased to see this headline. Sayonara.
It did not stop there, however. With timing that I thought was more “retire or you’re cut” salary cap casualty than traditional retirement, Jeff Backus became the next to add by subtraction. There was a little more concern this time from the Lions fandom, but I was pretty relaxed. I’ll tell you why momentarily, but in essence, Backus was hated for a long time for a reason. Getting your quarterback through a couple of healthy seasons shouldn’t be a feat.
Finally, the Lions showed little effort in resigning Gosder Cherilus. As negative and irritated as I was when they took him in the first round that year, my mood was the absolute value of that when he was released. Could Gosder pass-block pretty well? Sure. How was his run-blocking? I couldn’t remember anything special there. He signed for almost five million dollars a year. My money, although significantly less than that, is on the Lions getting a 4th round compensatory pick for him next offseason. Whereas other fans were, or still are, concerned about losing this guy, once again I am pretty comfortable.
Why am I so comfortable? I don’t know. Just kidding, yes I do. People are heavily criticizing Matthew Stafford’s mechanics and footwork. Why did he just throw that side-armed? Why is this guy throwing off of his back foot? Newsflash, folks. He wasn’t doing it for style points. He was doing it to get through another season healthy. That shouldn’t be a feat.
Jeff Backus only allowed one sack last year. But, like we shouldn’t judge Ziggy Ansah’s upcoming season solely from his number of sacks, we shouldn’t judge the success, or lack thereof, of Jeff Backus from that statistic. Jeff Backus also led the league in quarterback hits allowed. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise after you watched him be afraid of touching Julius Peppers when Peppers destroyed Matthew Stafford’s shoulder. Jeff Backus was also the second-worst rated run blocker at left tackle per Pro Football Focus. Why do we care that this guy retired? He has been hated for a long time, and for good reason. Thanks for your service, Jeff. I’m really not all that proud that you retired a Lion.
Moving from left to right as you would read a book, that brings us to Stephen Peterman. Fondness wouldn’t quite be the word to describe my attitude towards this guy. I think the worst I ever felt about him was when I saw him dive on a pile for no good reason, garnering a stupid penalty. Sadly, I can’t remember which time it was.
I expect Matthew Stafford to perform a lot better this year in large part to this guy’s departure. I honestly would have rather had any 5th round rookie in there than Stephen Peterman At least then, there’d be hope for development. This guy led the league in hurries among all left and right guards, allowed the second most sacks among right guards, and graded out as the 2nd worst RG in the league per PFF. I’m pretty sure we could plug in anybody to equal the suck that Peterman brought to the team. More to come on that later, but thankfully, we’ve got a pretty good piece to plug in.
That brings us to Gosder Cherilus. When he was picked, I had no idea who he was. I thought it was “Ghoster” Cherilus and the running joke between my buddies and I was that he was Ghoster Cherilus, Ghost of the Lions’ pride. Although he was probably the best of the three that are gone this offseason, he was still not all that good. I would say, although he graded out as PFF’s second-best right tackle, that he is the epitome of average at the position. Going back to the pass rush, Gosder allowed the 7th most hits for a right tackle and 8th most hurries for a right tackle. Average. Corey Hilliard has performed adequately in his absence in the pass and the staff is pretty enthused with Jason Fox. Speaking of these guys, let’s go ahead and turn the page to talk about the new offensive line..
Riley Reiff is going to be our starting left tackle. What can I say? It wasn’t a super-sexy draft pick for Detroit in 2012, but he was by far my best available player, sliding from what I had as a top-10 ranking. Reiff started one game for Jeff Backus last year. Sample size is an issue here, but he had to start against one of my favorite players in the league, J.J. Watt. Guess what? He graded out positively in the pass department that game. While he allowed three hurries and one hit, he allowed no sacks. For some perspective, Rob Sims allowed seven hurries, Dominic Raiola also allowed three hurries, Stephen Peterman allowed one hit and five hurries, and Gosder Cherilus allowed two hurries. Against the best defender in the game last year, Reiff performed well above average in his one start, and my have been our best offensive lineman. Considering that he also lined up as fullback, tight end, guard, and more, I’m not concerned about his negative ranking in the run game in his one start. I thought that was his strength coming out of college. Time will tell.
Changing gears a little bit, this year was the least I’ve watched of the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the NFL Draft for a long, long time. I was out on a Friday night with co-workers, many of whom just aren’t interested in the NFL Draft (I know, I don’t get it either). Anyways, I missed the 3rd round pick and didn’t see it until the following morning. When I woke up, I was catching up on Dave Birkett’s Twitter feed (of the Detroit Free Press) and was grinning when I saw the players available at our 3rd rounder. That grin grew to a Jim Schwarz-esque fist pump and a shout when I saw that the Lions had selected Larry Warford. Considering I had this guy just a half-round under Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack as prospects that I may have taken at five overall, to get Warford with our third round pick was a dream come true.
For being a rookie, I expect Larry to be well-seasoned. He played in the best NCAA conference and did not allow a single sack in 2012. With a 340 pound, short, squatty, prototypical guard frame, he’s going to be a far cry from Stephen Peterman against the pass. While Warford doesn’t necessarily fit the screen game well for Reggie Bush, I would say the only way we could have come out better in that department was with Jonathan Cooper or Riley Reiff at guard. None of the best left tackles were left at 5 and Ansah was probably the highest-ranked available, so it just didn’t work out that way. Warford’s going to be a demon in the power run game and we simply aren’t going to be seeing Stafford panic as much this year. That’s going to make me, and tons of other Lions fans, a happy camper.
That brings us to Jason Fox, my expected starter at right tackle. We haven’t been able to see much of him in the NFL yet, but keep in mind this guy was essentially a top-2nd round prospect when he was drafted that fell to the fourth due to injury concerns. He’s been banged up in the NFL, too, so those concerns may have been legitimate. If, by chance, he is healthy this year, I expect more or less a parallel to the performance of Gosder Cherilus. Fox is better against the pass than he is a force in the gun game, much like Gosder. Even if he doesn’t work out or isn’t healthy, the Lions have Corey Hilliard there, who has performed a little worse than Cherilus when he was benched, but not by much. Considering what I think were two huge upgrades at left tackle and right guard, a parallel here does not hurt, at least for a year or two.
What do I expect to see in 2013, then? Our screen game will likely be mainly to the left with Reggie Bush and Reiff/Sims/Pettigrew carving paths. I expect to see Stafford be able to step up in the pocket more with the absence of Peterman and the arrival of Warford. Raiola is still nothing special and will likely allow some pressures, and Sims isn’t a world-beater, either. But, all in all, let’s forget for a minute all of the management’s talk of continuity and how important it is. From statistics and film study, I can say with 95% confidence that the offensive line is going to be a lot better this year. And yes, that statistic was made up on the spot.