This is a tough thing to grade for offensive linemen. They have no truly native stats, “sacks allowed” is extremely subjective and esoteric (i.e. it says nothing about run blocking, for instance), and it’s (usually) impossible to attribute something like an improved running game to just one player on the line.
That said, the guys at Pro Football Focus have Raiola ranked as the best center in the NFC. According to Justin Rogers at MLive.com, head coach Jim Schwartz said “he’s playing the best football maybe in the five years that I have been here.” That’s production enough, I imagine.
Centers don’t make “impact” plays. It’s not in their job description. What they can do is prevent negative impact plays, and Raiola is doing that with regularity, routinely winning his matchups on the line, even against the heavy defensive tackles he has historically struggled against.
Raiola is going to be 35 years old this December, he took a huge pay cut to stay with the team this year, and he has built a reputation as a scrappy, undersized center who gets by on work ethic and football IQ. That he gets overwhelmed by larger nose tackle-types was a foregone conclusion, especially for a guy in the twilight years of his career.
That is no longer happening. He was even pushing 335-pound Browns tackle Phil Taylor off the line. Maybe it’s because he has quality guards on either side of him (more on that later), or maybe it’s the extra weight he packed on in this offseason. Whatever the reason, Raiola is outperforming more than just the expectations for his 13th NFL season, he’s playing better football than anyone thought him capable of.
The Lions need to replace Raiola in the very near future. Most (myself included) assumed the writing was on the wall for his retirement, with him taking a pay cut in the final year of his contract just to stay with the team. Now I’m not so sure. The way Raiola is playing right now, forget a pay cut, the Lions might have to win a bidding war just to keep him next season.
But that’s a concern for several months from now. The Lions would have been happy just with Raiola not getting shoved five yards back into the pocket every play. That he’s actually a positive impact player this year has been a huge boost. That said, they probably could have done without the whole Wisconsin band thing.