Position summary: Only one face should change on Detroit's offensive line in 2006, and that will likely reflect the entrance of offensive line coach Larry Beightol. The former mastermind behind Green Bay's infamous line play (1999-2005), Beightol was key in Detroit's signing of former Packer guard Ross Verba. Verba played under Beightol in 1999 and 2000.
Because of his familiarity with Beightol's regimen, Verba will likely replace last year's key free agent acquisition, left guard Rick DeMulling, who struggled throughout 2005, even finding himself benched on occasion. Verba missed last year, but has already created an impact in Detroit. Upon arrival, Verba predicted he would start, and he backed up that talk almost immediately after playing first-team left guard during off-season drills.
DeMulling remains a suitable reserve guard, along with veteran newcomers Barry Stokes and Rex Tucker. Ten-year veteran Brock Gutierrez and Tyrone Hopson, both with the team last season, will have their work cut out for them if they hope to crack the squad. Undrafted Frank Davis is an interesting project with a load of potential, and will likely be retained on the practice squad along with fellow guard and seventh-round pick Fred Matua.
Jeff Backus is a mainstay, and will help protect offensive coordinator Mike Martz's sacred pocket.
Beside Verba will be six-year veteran Jeff Backus, who will continue to provide strong blindside protection at left tackle. Backus has not missed a game since joining the team as a first round draft choice, providing stability to one end of a unit that is expected to improve drastically under Beightol. He was rewarded on July 13 with a new six-year contract that will pay him $40 million.
But while Backus isn't a concern, the player opposite him is: second-year liability Kelly Butler.
In 2005, the right tackle position was exploited frequently by the opposition as the rookie Butler learned under fire, often times missing assignments or getting outplayed by average defenders. However, if there's one benefit to Butler, it's his upside. The 6'7, 334 pounder has the physical tools to dominate an opponent, and Beightol will attempt to extract as much of that potential as he can during training camp. Butler has the most raw talent of any offensive lineman on the roster, and that will need to be fine-tuned as Beightol begins to implement the myriad of run formations required by offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
If Butler is unable to retain his post, the Lions have already flirted with Tucker at the position. Tucker, a natural guard, is versatile enough to play both spots and stepped in as a first-team right tackle during a handful of formations during one of the team's mini-camps.
Also adding depth at the tackle position is fifth-round pick Jonathan Scott. Viewed as a project, the 6'6, 315-pound mammoth Texas product will not start in 2006, learning behind Backus while also studying run blocking should he move to the right side of the line.
Damien Woody returns to help anchor the offensive line in Detroit.
Veteran right guard Damien Woody will certainly help with both Scott and Butler's development and he will again be instrumental in the run department. An eight-year player, Woody has been another staple of Detroit's offensive line, playing at a high caliber despite the lack of a constant to his right. He suffered a broken hand in early June, but should be without a cast as training camp gets underway in late July.
Under center is four-year starter Dominic Raiola. The Nebraska product has shrugged off concerns that he is undersized (6'1, 295 pounds), making up for it with brilliant offensive line leadership. Raiola has a knack for recognizing defensive schemes and calling the appropriate adjustment.
Beightol, Martz and head coach Rod Marinelli have been floored by Raiola's cerebral line ability during the off-season, and there really isn't another player that can challenge him at center. Reserve center Dave Pearson, a former UM standout, could land on the practice squad.
Levi Newton and Clint Stockdorn are practice squad players from a year ago, but look to remain camp fodder along with first-year players Matt McGhghy and Tom Kalieta. Four-year player Courtney Van Buren will also be at camp, but is a reach to land a roster nod.