After a disappointing 4-12 season the brain trust of the Detroit Lions will be forced to examine their roster and identify areas of opportunity in an effort to bounce back in 2013.
With a significant portion of their roster scheduled for free agency – including many starters – and the limitations imposed by the salary cap, some changes may have more to do with resources than improvements.
The lengthy, work-filled offseason is upon the Lions. To help shed some light on the pending tasks at hand, we will go over a roster breakdown, position by position.
Position: Offensive Line
Players under contract for 2013 with Projected Cap Hit: Jeff Backus ($7.9 Million), Rob Sims ($1.85 Million), Dominic Raiola ($6.13 Million), Stephen Peterman ($2.93 Million), Riley Reiff ($1.82 Million), Bill Nagy ($555,000)
The Lions have gotten the most out of their offensive line in pass blocking situations but haven't always been satisfied with the push generated in the run game.
Some changes may be made to the starting lineup, most likely at the tackle position and potentially the guard position as well.
Long time starter Jeff Backus figures to return on the left side. The offensive line mainstay has another year left on his contract and, despite missing the first game of his NFL career on Thanksgiving Day – remains a reliable starter. Backus probably won't get the appreciation he deserves until he is gone and it doesn't look like that will happen until after 2013.
Gosder Cherilus is an unrestricted free agent and – if not re-signed – his departure would be loss. The former first-round pick has been quietly solid at the right tackle position – only giving up four sacks, seven hits and 27 hurries despite protecting for all but one of the team's 740 pass attempts. Still, despite those contributions he doesn't seem likely to return.
The primary reason the Lions may opt to let Cherilus walk is 2012 first-round draft pick Riley Reiff. As a rookie, Reiff started only one game – at left tackle in place of an injured Backus – and held up decently. Reiff needs to become more consistent in order to be a reliable starter but looked good as an extra lineman – a task he performed on roughly 250 snaps.
Dominic Raiola has been the Lions starting center for a decade. He makes up for his relatively small stature with intelligence and communication on the field. Look for him to return in 2013.
Rob Sims has been a consistent presence at left guard – a position the Lions struggled to fill before acquiring Sims. He is solid in the pass game and may be the best run blocker on the line. It's safe to pencil him in at left guard for 2012.
Stephen Peterman has been a starter for the Lions since 2007 but is the most likely candidate to be replaced on the interior of the line. He is under contract for 2013 but after allowing five sacks, four hits and 36 hurries this past season expect him to be in a competition for his starting spot.
If the team doesn't acquire any starting material at guard in the offseason, the biggest push to Peterman may come from Bill Nagy, a former seventh-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Nagy started four games his rookie season before being placed on Injured Reserve with a fractured ankle that he re-injured in August before joining the Lions.
It's likely tackle Corey Hilliard, a six-year pro who has spent the last four years in Detroit, will be viewed as expendable and not re-signed. As a versatile backup, Hilliard had value to the team but the Lions may opt to go a cheaper route by tendering – or simply re-signing – Jason Fox, who also has tremendous position flexibility.
Fox struggled to stay healthy in his first two years but managed to kick the injury bug in 2012. He didn't play in any games for the Lions but the team praised his work on the practice field.
Dylan Gandy was the only other lineman on the team's 53-man roster. Gandy's primary value to the team was his position versatility, particularly his ability to serve as a backup guard and center. With an expiring contract, it is unclear if Gandy will return.
The biggest decision the team has is at right tackle. Cherilus has been – at the very least – adequate in his role but the team could save money by going to Reiff or even Fox.
The Lions have to also be prepared for the enviable loss of Backus, which may be one year away, so keeping Cherilus would serve a purpose if the team envisions Reiff as a future left tackle. However, the team also may not want to leave its promising prospects – Reiff and Fox – on the bench for another year.
The team will likely explore options at guard to at least push Peterman in 2013.