ALLEN PARK - Rod Marinelli knows this and so does Mike Martz; the Lions attempts to run The Show are going to fall flat unless they get to work fixing the offensive line.
Starting left tackle Jeff Backus is a free agent, the left guard position is wide open after both Rick DeMulling and Kyle Kosier turned out to be free agent whiffs. At right tackle Kelly Butler's performance in his first year as a starter was both spotty and encouraging. Dominic Raiola is entrenched as the center and Damien Woody is the lone star in the five man unit.
The Lions are likely to retain Jeff Backus, who is viewed as the top tackle available on the free agent market. Backus could be franchised at a palatable number for the team for one year until they can work out a long-term contract. Backus, a hard working contributor, has been somewhat of an underachiever after being drafted (2001, 18th overall) in the first round, but no one can question his grit and toughness after he played through injuries that could have ended his 2005 season early.
Some feel those injuries to his legs and ankles have hampered his development and believe that working with a taskmaster like Marinelli will help Backus to blossom.
Detroit is tinkering with the idea of moving Woody from the left guard position to the right guard. They feel teaming Woody with a re-signed Backus will solidify one side of the offensive unit, rather than spreading the weakness along the line of scrimmage. A Woody-Backus tandem is likely to be successful in run blocking since Backus' strength is in the run game.
While some feel that Raiola is too small to be a solid pivotman, Detroit likes the former Nebraska star's ability to get out into space on run plays and plans to take advantage of that. While Raiola will never be able to handle the biggest of defensive tackles, he is improving and learning to hold his own at the point of attack. Raiola has worked hard in the weight room to improve his strength and it shows. The Lions feel his best years are ahead of him.
Butler will get a shot at retaining the right tackle position, but that is by no means a lock. Butler showed real potential in outings against some of the league's top pass rushers but his inconsistency scuttled the Lions attack. At times he would look like a pro bowl caliber player, at other times, he would look totally overmatched. Detroit hopes working with new offensive line coach Larry Beightol will improve Butler's consistency. They also believe their new, more physical man blocking schemes will also fit his skill set. If they're right, Butler could be a budding star, if not, they could bring in a veteran presence to provide competition.
The one position that will get an infusion of new blood is the guard position opposite Woody.
Detroit can't count on either DeMulling or Kosier if they really want to have the kind of physical, mauling front that Marinelli envisions. They needn't look further than the NFL draft where Max Jean-Gilles (6-foot-4, 340) of Georgia showed he's just what the doctor ordered in Senior Bowl workouts.
Gilles looked like a man against boys in several workout session and is projected as a early second round pick.