Detroit Lions fans and media alike were justifiably concerned about the Lions’ right tackle position during and after the 2013 NFL draft. After going defense in rounds one and two, the team proceeded to address the right guard position, but then little else on the offensive line, leaving no clear succession on the edge.
Without a clear starter, veteran Corey Hilliard and the oft injured Jason Fox waged an on and off camp battle that lacked a clear victor. The team would start Fox until he got hurt (almost immediately), whereupon Hilliard took up the reins. He played alright, not particularly good but not bad enough that we were throwing things through our TVs. When he, too, went down with injury, the Lions started rookie undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle and the rest, as they say, is history. Could Waddle’s emergence put Corey Hilliard on the Detroit Lions roster bubble?
Despite Waddle’s late season surge as not only a competent starter but potential long term answer at Tackle, there were some (generally outside Detroit media) who called for the Lions to take the third, or even the fourth best offensive tackle in the draft if the opportunity presented itself, manufacturing a need that didn’t exist. Thankfully, the team went the route of developing their young talent and didn’t address the tackle position at all until after the draft reached its conclusion.
What they did next was interesting to me, and a reason I believe the team could look to trade Hilliard for a late round pick if he’s outplayed in camp. The Lions’ first target in undrafted free agency was Cornelius Lucas, OT, Kansas State. NFL teams are given only a set amount of money to spend as bonuses for UDFAs and the Lions spent 25% of that total on Lucas alone. The $20,000 they spent on Lucas is twice what they gave LaAdrian Waddle in 2013 and more than they gave Joseph Fauria. Both of those players made the team. It’s a clear sign they like the chances of the 6’8” 316 lb. behemoth.
By itself, signing Lucas doesn’t signal much for Hilliard, but taking history into account it isn’t a positive sign for the 7th year tackle. Martin Mayhew has always been active before and during camp, bringing in younger players and veterans alike to compete against the current roster. The Lions signed both Leroy Harris and Jake Scott in June 2013 (Harris would inexplicably make the roster). Even Hilliard himself was a late season addition in 2009. Rashean Mathis was signed late in camp despite the Lions drafting Darius Slay in the 2nd round and picking 3 cornerbacks the year before.
Regardless of positional need, Mayhew has aggressively pursued players he views as fits for the Lions, a trend I would expect to continue. If an offensive tackle is cut during camp that the Lions like, don’t be surprised if they jump to bring them in to compete with Hilliard, who turned 29 this past April, especially if they are under 25.
Corey Hilliard has been a great locker room presence for the Lions since his addition in 2009 and a decent backup in limited duty. As a swing player, he’s offered the team some versatility as a multi-position backup and given them roster flexibility over the past 5 seasons. What he has not given them is development, coming to the team as a backup and injury replacement (a role he has not grown out of) and there comes a time when you have to look at moving on.
The Lions seemed poised to do so; the question now is whether they try to strengthen their team in 2015 by picking up additional picks or in 2014 by finding a younger player with upside to develop.