4) DETROIT LIONS: As far as offensive lines go, the group that the Lions put out on the field was an unmitigated disaster most weeks, particularly in the running game where they averaged a league-worst 83.4 yards on the ground.
Mid-season coaching changes that resulted in Jim Bob Cooter being elevated to offensive coordinator and Ron Prince to offensive line coach resulted in making a bad situation a bit more tenable, as they both focused on simplifying blocking schemes.
The new philosophy paid immediate dividends with the Blue and Silver averaging 98 rushing yards per game in the second half, which led to a greater offensive balance and better numbers on the part of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Lions’ supporters have every right in venting their frustrations about left tackle Riley Reiff, who was one of the line’s more stable components with 15 starts on his ledger. The 27-year-old bookend can typically be counted on for his effort and sound technique, but he just doesn’t possess the footwork and lateral quickness to keep speed rushers at bay.
So the debate has been where do you line him up? Some seem to believe that moving him to the right side will solve all his issues. The better solution would be to push him inside or to the bench if necessary, but the second option is highly unlikely to take place given the former Iowa Hawkeye’s $8.07-million salary.
New GM Bob Quinn may have found his answer at left tackle by reeling in Ohio State’s Taylor Decker with the 16th pick in the first round. Decker comes to Motown with a background as a talented high school basketball player who used his length and extraordinary body control to move defenders off the ball during his time as a Buckeye in Columbus.
There’s no question that Decker is the far more athletic option when compared to Reiff and should be lining up on Stafford’s blindside barring any unforeseen happenings.
The guard positions will be handled by second-year man Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford. Tomlinson started 14 of 16 games as a rookie and had his share of struggles as a run blocker, but that could have also been influenced by playing on the right side between Reiff and the underperforming center Travis Swanson (more on him later) on the left side of the line. The Jamaica native does deserve kudos for his discipline in keeping his penalties to a minimum and also did credible work in locking on to opponents in pass protection.
The massive Warford, on the other hand, is a well-established pro and Detroit’s best offensive lineman. His balance and lower-body flexibility help him excel as one of the league’s premiere drive blockers. Ankle injuries were the only thing that stood in his way in 2015.
The fact that previously referenced Swanson is a 25-year-old center with only 19 starts in the pros would lead you to believe he still has upside, but he better start translating that potential into production before the coaching staff starts looking for his replacement.
According to Pro Football Focus’ player-rating system, the third-year pro ranked 33rd among centers last season. To add insult to injury, the painfully inept center allowed a league-high 24 hurries as a pass blocker. Swanson’s lack of balance and inability to sustain blocks caused many an inside defender to penetrate the “A” gaps and force Stafford to often quicken his delivery or just take a sack.
The versatile, but injury-prone Geoff Schwartz was acquired as a veteran insurance policy. Rookie Joe Dahl will offer additional depth as a guard who has the slide-and-mirror skills to be an effective pass blocker, but lacks the natural power to push guys backward.
Gabe Ikard is a backup center who is both intelligent and tough, but seems like another version of Swanson in terms of his balance issues and overall strength. Rookie Graham Glasgow is likely the better alternative should Swanson fall on hard times again. The six-foot-five, 307-pound youngster can pack a punch with his extraordinary lower body strength.
The well-traveled Michael Ola was a pleasant surprise late in the year by outperforming the woeful LaAdrian Waddle and ineffective Cornelius Lucas. Thankfully for Lions fans, Waddle is no longer with the team, but has managed to hook on with the New England Patriots giving truth to the theory that most tackles have nine lives no matter how dreadfully bad they may have been in their previous stops (see Alex Barron, Marshall Newhouse, J’Marcus Webb et al.).
This unit is one of the league’s youngest. Among the group, only the 34-year-old Schwartz is older than 28. With youth comes upside and a plenty of growing pains. Can Detroit’s line perform better than they did last year? It would be hard not to, but keeping expectations in check would be this doctor’s prescription for 2016.
Next: No. 3