With the combine nearly upon us, it's time to resume the position-by-position roster breakdown. As with the defense, we'll start with the players closest to the ball and move out.
Is there any more controversial Lion than center Dominic Raiola? The Hawaiian-born, 6'-1", 295 pounder was Matt Millen's second-ever draft pick, and a prototypical West Coast Offense center. Coming from a long line of outstanding Nebraska Cornhusker offensive linemen, Raiola was anointed the interior anchor, signal caller, and (to use an apropos basketball term) pivotman of the Lions offensive line for the next decade. His squat frame (I believe the '1"' at the end of that 6' is decorative) helps open up sight lines and passing lanes for QBs hitting short slants. His ability to pull, agility in space, and second-level blocking makes him perfect for blocking on the screens and outlet passes that help the WCO stay "on schedule" and keep defenses honest. So what's the problem?
Well for starters, the problem is that the Lions haven't run the WCO for years. The other problem is that Raiola is a little undersized for a modern NFL offensive lineman, and has always lacked either the bulk, the strength, or both, to push the pile. As a rookie, this was painfully obvious; he was absolutely abused in the interior of the line, and was a big reason why Lions power backs, like James Stewart, could never establish a rhythm. I remember well watching him in his rookie year at the old SVSU open training camp, and cringing. Lions DTs like Luther Eliss and Kelvin Pritchett absolutely had their way with him; it wasn't a great omen. In the passing game, Raiola had good technique right out of the block, but his lack of bulk (and lack of experience facing elite DTs in the Big 12) meant that he needed help from a guard to block even average defensive tackles. Raiola quickly earned the scorn of most fans as the first high-profile Matt Millen 'bust'. Raiola put his head down and worked, and within a couple of years, his maturing body and NFL strength training began to caulk over some of the gaps in his game. His toughness, consistency, and heady reads brought what very little consistency there was to an offensive line that has been a revolving door in more ways than one. When Joey Harrington was on the ropes, it was often reported that Raiola was the only teammate that consistently had his back in the locker room. Though the offense last year was not geared to his strength--emphasizing the power run game and deep passing game--to me, there was an immediate dropoff in overall OL play when he went out with an injury to his right wrist. As testament to his toughness and committment, Raiola spent several weeks putting in extra time, trying to teach himself to snap with his left hand. Keep in mind, the Lions were already approaching 0-16 at that point; Raiola and the Lions had practically nothing left to play for.
I am not going to suggest that Dominic Raiola is an elite center. However, most Lions fans filed this guy in the "sucks" bin many years ago--and either have not watched for, or have not been able to see, the vast improvement he has made since. He is among the top half of starting centers in this league--and having already had a cast of thousands be awful on either side of him, with no end in sight, the Lions desperately need him to stay right where he is for 2009.
Andy McCollum is a fifteen-year veteran, the meatiest nine of which were spent with the St. Louis Rams. McCollum played on some outstanding offensive lines in the late nineties and early aughts with the Greatest Show on Turf, and continued to be a steady force in the middle for years after Vermeil, Warner, Faulk, and company pulled up stakes and left town. McCollum was one of the many offensive linemen who were crumpled by the St. Louis O-Line Famine of 2007, and was released after the season was over. The Lions picked up the 6'-4", 300-pound veteran for depth, and for the first time in well over a hundred games, the Lions had need of a backup center. McCollum stepped and started against Jacksonville, and did an okay job. Many Lions fans rejoiced at how the running game seemed to pick up--and it's true, it looked like RB Kevin Smith had more daylight up the middle than before. However, in pass protection, the offensive line was quickly overmatched. The meager amounts of the cohesiveness and toughness the offensive line had recently begun to show, especially in the Chicago game, evaporated. Without Raiola calling the protections, it was clear that the offensive line was back to being five ill-fitting parts again, rather than a cohesive machine. McCollum was definitely decent, and his size and leverage in the middle was definitely a more natural fit for the Coletto/Kippy Brown/Dumpster Fire 'offensive scheme' the Lions ran in 2008. However, even if he were an overall upgrade over Raiola (he isn't), his best days are long since behind him. I would not be surprised if McCollum hung 'em up after this season, or even before.
SUMMARY: The Lions have a solid veteran center in Raiola, and only a veteran reduced by age to mediocrity behind him. If the Lions were looking to go interior line with the 1.20, 2.1, or 3.1, and an outstanding center prospect with grit and size (like Cal's 6'-4" 316# Alex Mack) were sitting there, I could see them taking him and putting him at RG, with the understanding that he could someday usurp Raiola on the line. If McCollum retires or is released, I could see the Lions signing a veteran OL with an outstanding special teams resume to take his spot as the 'warm body who can snap'.