Detroit Lions Positional Analysis: How to Improve the Offensive Line

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While it is true the Detroit Lions offensive line has seen some improvement under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, it is still painfully evident that the Lions could use some improvement at the tackle and center spots heading into 2016 as discussed in my previous articles.

As noted in Jeff Risdon’s latest article, the Lions have already recently spent significant capital in the draft on the offensive line, a few of which are undoubtedly future contributors, shown below:

  • Riley Reiff, first round, 2012
  • Larry Warford, third round, 2013
  • Travis Swanson, third round 2014
  • Laken Tomlinson, first round, 2015

However, the Lions have avoided signing any significant free agents along the offensive line for many years. This year, they rank 2nd last in the entire league in spending along the offensive line at just $1.1 million per player per Teams that have exceled in the pass protection department such as the Jets, Cardinals, and Bengals all reside in the top 10 in this category. Per previous analysis on sacks and wins, it is apparent that the success experienced in pass protection has allowed those teams to win more games. 

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We should also visit the fact that the Steelers, Patriots, Broncos, and Seahawks, four of this season’s likely playoff teams, all reside in the bottom 10 in dollars spent per player. Those teams, to me, are all exceptions to the rule. The team with the stoutest quarterback in the pocket, the fastest pass releasing quarterback, the best defense, and the most elusive quarterback in the league, respectively, allow these teams to transcend to the upper echelon. Also, each team also ranks top ten in the number of linemen signed, which brings down the per-year salary number. The Lions do not experience any of those luxuries and so should look at a more significant monetary investment in the offensive line.

The Lions are expected to have $20 to 25 million in cap space for the 2016 season, and with a new GM and pending cap casualties Stephen Tulloch, Rashean Mathis, Brandon Pettigrew and Joique Bell that number could jump to $30 to 35 million or more. Thus, they have ample space to improve multiple positions if they so choose.

Aug 20, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Detroit Lions tackle Riley Reiff (71) prepares to block Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith (94) during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Current left tackle Riley Reiff’s cap number next year stands at about $8 million with the team picking up his option last offseason. If they choose to extend him that number will come down barring an all-pro season. If they do not choose to extend him, it is a one year number regardless. Thus, in this analysis I will not consider Reiff’s number a handicap to long-term planning although it will definitely factor in for 2016.

Knowing that, let’s assume Riley Reiff could be switched the right side as he is one of the league’s best pass blocking tackles, so they would have needs at left tackle and center. If Riley Reiff stays on the left side, then truly the number of needs increases from two to three because he’s not successful in doing what the team arguably needs most, and that’s protecting Matthew Stafford.

With the cap space the Lions will have, it’s not likely they can sign two high-caliber free agents this offseason on the offensive line, so let’s look at patching those holes with pairs of one upper-tier free agent signing and one draft pick. Let us also keep in mind the balance required here as we aim for improvement in both the power run and the pass protection sides. Let’s assume that the free agent will be signed for somewhere in the range of $8 to 10 million per year with the first year consuming about $6 million of the team’s cap space after signing bonus prorations.

All that being said, here are four pairs that would be legitimate options for improving this unit.

Next: Alex Mack and Taylor Decker