We’re on the home stretch folks, congratulations, you’ve almost made it! The opening ceremonies to the Olympics were on last night, so I would just like to say wow that one huge performance piece or surprise moment was really exciting and or moving! Of course you can’t forget that crazy mistake on live television! Some of the athletes from several countries in the general vicinity found that quite amusing and/or concerning. To give you a little view under the kimono here I write these puppies a day in advance so that’s about as in depth an analysis for that event as you’re going to get. If you’re not interested in the Olympics, the hall of fame game is on Sunday where we get to watch Brett Favre, the guy with a career record of 26-10 versus the Lions, be enshrined in the hall of fame… Maybe getting interested in beach volleyball might be for the best. In all seriousness it should be a great night with one of the better classes seen in years getting inducted so you should check that out if you have the time. Anyways we now move on to arguably the position group of most importance, and potentially most concern, for this Lions team in 2016….
The Offensive Line
Our first round pick for 2016, Taylor Decker has been intriguing as all hell this off-season. A guy that was once thought to need a bit of time to develop into the NFL game, Decker seemingly out of thin air has stolen Riley Reiff’s spot on the blindside and is trending toward starting there week one. This means one of two things: either the Lions know what they have in Reiff and now want to see if Taylor can be better by throwing him into the fire right off the hop, or Decker is already outplaying him. The latter would be extremely exciting considering that Reiff is a consistently average starter among NFL left tackles, however based on the reports coming out of camp about the offensive line as a whole I’m not ready to hop on that claim quite yet. What you get in Taylor Decker at the end of the day is a lot of really good raw skills that need a bit of polish. He’s a massive guy, athletic as all heck, and relatively smart but the key to his success will be in developing his footwork and overall technique. While he’s holding his own fairly well against bull rushes and inside pressure, he has gotten beaten pretty handily on the speed rush which is all footwork and positioning. Considering super fast uncontested pressure from the blindside is typically a bad thing for your offense I’m going to hope that this is all part of a very short rookie learning curve and point to the fact that there is still a lot of camp time to go before the regular season. I have more positive things to say about him then negative to this point so that is certainly a good thing. Week one of the preseason will be a huge test with the likes of Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats to contend with.
2016 projection: Starter at left tackle
Riley Reiff has taken a lot of flack unfairly over his time in Detroit for the failures of a generally unimpressive offensive line. He’s received little in the way of help from his offensive line mates on that side of the ball since taking over the position and still managed to score relatively favorable reviews. He never brought about a huge amount of excitement because he isn’t an elite player at the position but he never should have been expected to. When he was drafted he was expected to be in the serviceable to above average range and that is exactly what he has been his entire career. Now with Decker coming in and playing the left side, he seems fired up and more dominant in what many believed to be a more natural position for him on the right side. While sure it’s a very small sample size to this point he has been the absolute stand out of the unit to date breaking facemasks left and right, showing why he is the leader of the offensive line. If this trend continues it will bode very well for a revived run game and Matthew Stafford’s health in 2016 as much of the pressure he faced last year came from the right side.
2016 projection: Starter at right tackle
Ola came to us mid season last year at a crucial point. UDFA sweetheart LaAdrian Waddle was fighting through yet another injury, the final derailment that ended his time in Detroit, and the combo of Cornelius Lucas and Corey Robinson just wasn’t going to cut it. The journeyman then came into the starting lineup and proceeded to play relatively decent to downright well through the last half of the season. Now it seems he will be locked in one of camp’s closest battles to take over the swing tackle spot. While his play last year will definitely help his chances, he has some clear limitations that will hold him back from running away with the job. He’s missing a lot in the size department at 6 feet 3 inches, 305 pounds playing mainly off of pure desire, which almost definitely limits him from stepping over to the blind side if Taylor were to go down. While this isn’t a deal breaker, moving Reiff to the left side and then putting Ola in on the right is less then ideal. There’s also the matter of his age, as at 28 Ola isn’t going anywhere skill wise, whereas a guy like Lucas, while in a prove it year at this point has a much higher potential ceiling that he can hopefully tap into. This decision will come down to the wire and will depend a lot upon what happens in the coming preseason games.
2016 projection: Cut
I’m not quite sure if anyone truly knows who Cornelius Lucas is. I don’t mean that in the sense that the average person wouldn’t be able to identify him, at six feet nine inches, 330lbs, he’s a monster of a human being – what we don’t know at this point is who he is as a football player. There are times where he’s been a serviceable tackle, and there have even been extremely brief flashes where you could see glimmers of a potential future franchise left tackle. There have also been times however where he’s been so bad that people are stunned he hasn’t been cut and run out of Detroit. There’s even been some really odd times when he’s showed off his athletic ability to the point where people have suggested he cut weight and turn into a blocking tight end which would be super weird after the whole Michael Williams experiment but I digress. Lucas has boatloads of potential, the key will be whether he’s ever able to tap into it and play consistently well. While he has recently shown signs he’s started to put it together, we won’t truly know how far he’s come until we see him on the offensive line in the preseason. With his previously mentioned ceiling, several quality interior backups that can flip outside set to make the roster, and his being the best potential left tackle backup not named Riley Rieff, that should be barely enough to keep him in the final 53.
2016 projection: Primary backup, swing tackle
Robinson needed a really good camp to stay on the team this year after showing he just wasn’t at the level necessary last season. Starting on the PUP was not the best way to go about that. He’s got prototypical size, which is nice, but he’s slow as molasses and any speed rusher worth his salt flies by him almost untouched. While he will certainly be in the conversation with Lucas and Ola for the swing tackle slot, he’s definitely the dark horse at this point. Yes he is a recent draft pick, but a 7th rounder from a previous regime doesn’t get a lot of loyalty points.
2016 projection: Cut
Marquardt was an extremely interesting prospect coming out of school. The problem is, that was back in 2013. Since that point he’s been constantly injured, never able to put that early promise together into something valuable. Now he is camp fodder.
2016 projection: Cut
Going into this season the offensive line needed a veteran presence to stabilize a young group. Enter Geoff Schwartz who will be a huge part of the team despite not being a part of the starting line. One of the most significant issues that plagued the offence last year was when someone on the line was injured there was a massive dip in the talent of the replacement filling his slot. Schwartz can step in at either guard or tackle competently and keep the line going without a significant drop off. There’s even a chance he could take over the swing tackle position based upon how depth competitions at other positions end up. Most importantly though, the value of his mind cannot be understated. He hosts a podcast with his brother analyzing offensive line play, and the amount of knowledge he can pass on to one of the youngest lines in the game cannot be understated. Don’t be shocked if this isn’t our biggest free agent pick up outside of Marvin Jones.
2016 projection: Primary backup
Our first of two 5th round picks, Joe Dahl is another versatile player that can play both tackle and guard. While he probably translates better to guard at the NFL level, he has extensive tackle experience as a two-year starter on the blind side for Washington state, the number one passing offense in the nation last year. There are concerns with how he will translate to a pro style blocking scheme as his team ran a non-traditional style of play, but moving him to the interior and giving him plenty of time to develop should alleviate that issue. He’s a big strong guy who should with enough time be worst case the next Geoff Schwartz, best case a future starter.
2016 projection: Backup
The first pick from 2015, Laken Tomlinson got off to a bit of a rocky start his rookie year. He simply was not ready yet for the NFL game, however there was clearly development in the time he did see on the field. Based on the reports coming out of camp to date though, some of those struggles still continue to plague him. While it’s generally expected for the defensive line to be beating the offensive line in the early stages, Tomlinson is visibly frustrated and has been regularly beaten. He has unbelievable strength and awareness, but it’s a real possibility Lombardi’s complicated blocking scheme set back his development to a certain degree. He will be a crucial part of the offensive line, particularly in the development of a competent run game, so hopefully he can come around sooner rather then later. In today’s practice he was said to have had a much improved performance so this bodes well for the line moving forward.
2016 projection: Starter left guard
Warford has certainly had an up and down tenure in Detroit. His rookie year had him skyrocket to being one of the top five guards in the game. Since that point though he has slowly and slightly fallen down the ranks of the position, suffering from several injuries and the lack of a quality linemate on both sides. Entering a contract year now, Warford is in the prime position to reach those old heights, hopefully dramatically improving our run game down his side in the process. He truly has all the tools along with the resume to suggest he can be one of the best guards in the NFL, now he simply needs to put all of that theory together and make it happen in practice. We will have to wait for game time till we see just how great he’s going to be, but he should not be a concern by any means when talking about weak links on the offensive line. On top of all that now that he’s quit Pokemon Go he’s had so much more time to work out and prepare it has to be a good thing for the coming season.
2016 projection: Starter right guard
Ranked as one of the worst starting centers in the league last year, Swanson doesn’t have anywhere to go but up this season. He botched snaps, whiffed when he got out for blocks in space, and was a revolving door for inside pressure all year long. While yes, he suffered through a shoulder injury most of the year, that performance is inexcusable. He will need to improve dramatically off of his first year starting to be considered a viable long-term option. It will be a race between him and Graham Glasgow to see who starts out the season, however despite his failures last year I cannot see a way he does not get the first crack at the job. He not only is more experienced but has had little opportunity in the grand scheme and he needs to be given more game time so we know what we have before tossing away a recent prospect. People forget that while he is now a third year pro, he was redshirted his first season, and his second year was in effect his rookie season while playing through an injury. Without question there will be a short leash, but he should be your starting center for one more year, for better or for worse. Let’s just hope he trends in the upward direction
2016 projection: Starter center
The great white hope, from right down the street Michigan’s own Glasgow was brought in, in many fans minds, to day one take over the center position and revitalize the offensive line. Get that idea out of your head right now. Does he have a lot of intriguing tools? Definitely, and he should factor in to be a big part of the roster in the future. At this point though he is still raw and needs some polish before he can be considered a viable option on the field. He needs to go from a guy that just dominates everyone physically to more of a skilled technician with his hands and footwork. Since he’s not even able to pass up Gabe Ikard on the depth chart, you know he has a way to go. With his size and skill though I see a long-term player that can make a real impact for this team two to three years down the road.
2016 projection: Backup center
I’ve heard some say that Gabe Ikard would be a good option if Swanson sucks again and Glasgow isn’t ready. This is why I generally don’t listen to people. Anyone who’s watched Gabe Ikard play basically since he left Oklahoma knows that he’s not a very good football player. A great example of this point was a 1v1 rep he took against A’shawn Robinson where Gabe got leveled like the wall Kool-Aid man busts through. While Ikard was down on his back wondering what the hell just happened, Robinson was saying ‘Oh Yeahhh’ to the tackling dummy representing Matthew Stafford while giving it the equivalent of life in a wheelchair. I give him about a .05% chance of making this roster.
2016 projection: Cut
Farris was picked up as a priority UDFA and brings with him a lot of interesting qualities. He came to the offensive line position late after being a d-lineman his whole life before, but quickly turned his potential into production eventually starting opposite Taylor Decker on the Buckeye’s o-line. While a tackle in college, he projects best to the guard position and has spent time at a prestigious o-line training group to work on his technique to prepare for the NFL game. If given a few more years to develop, he could easily take arguably the line’s best raw athletic ability and turn it into a pro bowl quality type player. I’m extremely high on him heading forward and hope that he lasts to our practice squad if cut at some point in the roster trimming process. He’s a guy we definitely want to try to keep in house and develop.
2016 projection: Practice Squad
O-line final depth chart: (9) Taylor Decker, Laken Tomlinson, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, Riley Reiff, Geoff Schwartz, Cornelius Lucas, Joe Dahl, Graham Glasgow, Chase Farris (PS)
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