One of the first points Lions GM Bob Quinn made in his Combine press conference was to reaffirm the team’s commitment to offensive tackle Riley Reiff. There has been (fabricated) speculation the team would move on from Reiff, who is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, a deal which pays him an $8M base salary in 2016.
Quinn made no bones about it…
The new GM went into further detail which indicates both the commitment to Reiff and the team’s desire to upgrade the offensive line,
"He’s a versatile guy. He’s played different positions in his college career and his pro career, so we’ll look at everything depending on who else is on the team"
It seems every Lions fan is desperate to replace Reiff at left tackle, where No. 71 has started for the last three seasons. Be it potential free agents like Cordy Glenn or Russell Okung, or first-round draft targets such as Taylor Decker or Ronnie Stanley, many believe the panacea to all of Detroit’s offensive woes involves moving Reiff out of Matthew Stafford’s blind side. The national media largely buys into his narrative as well, as many mock drafts project the Lions to take a left tackle at No. 16 overall.
This is misguided enmity towards Reiff and his game. While he might not be a great left tackle, the veteran from Iowa has proven he’s really not bad either. Really.
I know your reaction. Stop day drinking. Here’s the sober truth: Riley Reiff is a perfectly average, adequate left tackle.
The good folks at Pro Football Focus graded out Reiff as the 16th-best left tackle in the NFL in 2015, and 28th overall tackle out of 76 qualifiers. Go back a year and he was 17th at left tackle, out of 38 qualifiers who started at least 4 games on the left side. Granted some of those below in either year didn’t play full seasons, and some are just wretched (hello ex-Lion Jason Fox!). Also, his overall +1.4 grade in 2015 shows a very real dichotomy between run blocking (6th for left tackles) and pass protection (19th at his position).
Here’s the sober truth: Riley Reiff is a perfectly average, adequate left tackle.
It’s that split in his run vs. pass, one which is patently obvious for anyone watching the Lions, which makes many believe Reiff should move to right tackle. I generally fall into that camp as well, though much of that stems from the abysmal play on the right side the last two seasons from the likes of the hobbled LaAdrian Waddle, the too-tall Cornelius Lucas and the not-ready-for-even-practice-squad Corey Robinson. Never mind that Michael Ola was actually playing some pretty solid right tackle down the stretch…
Having an average left tackle is good enough to win. It might even be more than enough. Take the Broncos, who lost stud LT Ryan Clady before the season but somehow still managed to win the Super Bowl with Ryan Harris, whose prior history was as a below-average right tackle in Kansas City and Houston. Or just look around the NFC North, where Reiff has been the best left tackle ever since he took over the gig. Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari might prove better in the long run, but if you are taking Matt Kalil or Charles Leno or Jermon Bushrod over Reiff, you’re out of your mind.
The point is, the Lions can win with Reiff as the left tackle. Is he overpaid? Probably, and that’s part of the reason why the Lions have yet to extend him. Also, Quinn and Head Coach Jim Caldwell would be smart to evaluate if moving Reiff to right tackle provides an overall line upgrade.
On this point, fellow Sidelion Report scribe Kent Platte offers this blunt, truthful assessment:
Kent is 100 percent correct. For better or worse, the Lions are set at the guard spots with Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford for the foreseeable future. And the concept of Reiff at center is laughable. That left guard position is one of the keys to helping Reiff get better.
Laken Tomlinson was not good as a rookie, certainly nothing close to the immediate impact first-rounder both the team and most fans expected. He played slow and never really developed a feel for how to work in tandem with those around him. Reiff, who is a bright guy and takes his craft quite seriously, often appeared to be a little too concerned with helping the big rookie to his right. I noted at least two sacks given up by Reiff where he was victimized in part by cheating a half-step to his inside to help Tomlinson with his responsibility.
Tomlinson should (read: must) play better in his second year, and that will only help Reiff. Getting a viable tight end to help against wide-aligned rushers would be nice too, or maybe the offense can play Michael Burton more often at fullback.
Let’s say for argument’s sake the Lions draft yet another offensive linemen in the first round. That would give the Lions three first-rounders and two third-rounders drafted since 2012 up front. What makes anyone believe any of Jason Spriggs or Ronnie Stanley or Jack Conklin will be any better at left tackle in 2016 than Riley Reiff? Of that group I like Spriggs the most, but I’m starting Reiff over him next year and I bet Jim Bob Cooter would as well.
I think the concept of replacing Reiff is a lot rosier as a dream than what the reality would be. Moving him to right tackle creates a hole of unknown depth at left tackle, plus we’re not sure Reiff will thrive any better on the right side. One of the adaptations to the offense is the Lions ran to the left pretty well. Moving Reiff sacrifices that potential matchup advantage.
I’m all for seeing if the OL can be upgraded. And if the Lions are able to acquire somebody who is definitively superior to Reiff at left tackle, by all means try him on the right side. With the final year of his contract looming, now is the time to figure that out. But if Reiff is still manning left tackle in 2016, it’s really not all that bad. Many teams have won with far worse players in that spot.
I’ll use the line I often used with Stafford heading into 2015. I’m not sure if Reiff is the long-term solution, but I know he’s not the short-term problem. Last year pretty much answered any lingering questions there. Perhaps 2016 will be the year Reiff proves he can be the long-term solution at left tackle.