sixteen hundred pounds of beef

>> 5.30.2009

Sixteen years ago, right around this time of year, the Detroit Lions squad that had been a game away from the Super Bowl just two season before was scouring free agency for offensive line help.  After the freak on-field paralysis of Mike Utley, and the grotesquely untimely death of 25-year old All-Pro guard Eric Andolsek, the Lions were floundering to rebuild the interior of their line.  I remember the headline in the Detroit Free Press: "Lions Add Nine Hundred Pounds of Beef".  With the addition of free agent guards David Lutz, Bill Fralic, and Dave Richards, the Lions hoped that merely filling the holes with huge veteran dudes (this was '93, a three-hundred-pound offensive guard was still rare) would do the trick.

With the announcement of the signing of veteran OT--and former U of M standout--Jon Jansen, I couldn't help but be reminded of that time in 1993.  The Lions, whose much-maligned offensive line is "anchored" by small-and-slow but tough-and-smart Jeff Backus at LT, and small-and-fast-and-smart-and-tough but small-and-weak Dominic Raiola, have in the past 13 months:

* drafted 6'-7", 319-pound RT Gosder Cherilus
* re-signed 6'-5", 338-pound RT George Foster
* signed 6'-6", 320-pound T/G Daniel Loper
* signed 6'-7", 310-pound T Ephraim Salaam
* signed 6'-6", 306-pound RT Jon Jansen

Of course, the first thing that jumps out at you about that list is how completely enormous these five men are; Jansen's weight is down from his usual playing weight because he was trying to fit into Redskins HC Jim Zorn's West Coast Offense.  All five of them are naturally huge men with big frames.  The second thing that jumps out at you is my listing of Gosder Cherilus, George Foster, and Jon Jansen all as right tackles.  The fact is that all three were primarily (or exclusively) right tackles in college, all three were drafted to play right tackle, and all three are strong, tough, mean run blockers who are somewhere between "raw" and "horrible" in pass protection.  All three of these men are natural right tackles--all in different stages of development, and all with different upsides and downside, but all right tackles.  Complicating matters is the addition of Ephraim Salaam, who has played both right and left tackle extensively in his 12-year career.  However, he most recently was replaced (by a rookie) as the starting LT on a subpar offensive line in Houston.  Salaam, in his prime, had the agility to play left tackle, but at this point he is almost certainly more useful as an RT, or perhaps as a swing backup.  Then there's Daniel Loper, who has the big frame to play either tackle spot, but the strength and agility to play guard as well.  Loper was signed as the presumed new starter at LG, but at 6'-6" he's got a natural tackle's frame.  Finally, there's Gosder the Gozerian--the biggest of them all.  The Lions' 2008 first-rounder, Gosder started off slowly last season, but really started to show flashes of serious talent towards the end of his rookie season.

None of these men represent an upgrade over Jeff Backus at left tackle, and--a bizarre minicamp experiment by the Redskins notwithstanding--none have ever played center.  Moreover, veteran RG Stephen Peterman was just re-signed to a long-term deal, so the five giants are really fighting for two starting spots: RT and LG.  From my perspective, it seems like lunacy to bench a 1-year veteran whose floor is no lower than any of the veterans, and whose upside is arguably much higher.  The only advantage I could see in a Salaam or Jansen at RT is having a cool veteran head out there in situations where an untimely penalty could cost the game.  Also, of course, there's the possibility of these veterans being able to provide leadership, both verbal and by example, to the young Gozerian.  I believe that Loper still has the inside track on the starting left guard position, if for no other reason than he's a young veteran with extensive guard experience.  Foster, is the least likely to land a starting job--he will have to make his first career switch inside to guard, and then beat out either Peterman or Loper to land a starting gig.  In fact, since he's no less mental-mistake prone than Gosder, and unable to play LT like Salaam can, I'm inclined to believe that Foster's only hope of making the roster at all is to switch to guard.

It remains to be seen how effective these men, these giants who probably can't ride the elevators at Ford Field all at the same time, can be for the Lions in 2009 and beyond.  It's my hope that even if the holes aren't "filled" for good, and the problem isn't "solved", these veterans will still be able to bridge the gap between the line's present and its future.  To bring out the best in talented projects like Cherilus, Lydon Murtha, and Manny Ramirez.  To lift, run, practice, and perform like true NFL veterans.  To set the table for the next huge portions of beef.

11 comments:

Greg May 31, 2009 at 1:37 AM  

I remember the Richards, Lutz, and Fralic signings very well. Richards made no friends and was gone after one year, I believe. I think Lutz and Fralic stayed longer.

Fralic used to wrestle alligators and all sorts of crazy sh*t, but was a pretty darned good player for the Falcons in his prime.

Hey, remember the failed Jim Pyne experiment at center?

Anonymous,  May 31, 2009 at 2:35 AM  

you forgot to add FA Kirk Barton and drafting Lydon Myrtha to the list.
LionFaninPA

Anonymous,  May 31, 2009 at 2:39 AM  

and although they are DTs, Grady Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill are like 800 lbs of beef by themselves.
LionFaninPA

Mark May 31, 2009 at 12:16 PM  

You would think that Foster has the right build to make for a more than adequate guard.

Chiefs All-Pro Guard Waters has asked to be traded or released.

Ty May 31, 2009 at 4:25 PM  

Greg--

I realized after I posted it that I never tied it all back to the results of the '93 free agent spree--though I guess it goes without saying that it wasn't a runaway success. I believe you're right that Lutz was pretty steady at one guard spot for several years. Fralic, I think, was relegated to a backup role when they signed Zefross "I think I'll dangle my dongle at a female reporter" Moss in '95.

Pyne, I try to forget about. I remember back in Madden '96 I was looking for a challenge, so I started a Bucs franchise. Running Errict Rhett behind Jim Pyne at RT; THAT was a challenge!

Peace
Ty

Ty May 31, 2009 at 4:31 PM  

Anon--

I was trying to draw a parallel between this offseason and the 1993 season, where both times the Lions went crazy trying to patch their offensive line with collection of large-but-not-necessarily skilled veterans. Nobody is touting Barton or Murtha as possible answers to the offensive line problem; I would say both have an uphill climb to even make the roster.

Peace
Ty

Ty May 31, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

Mark--

Yeah, there's no doubt in my mind that Foster has the frame to play guard. However, he's never actually done it before, and footwork and positioning are a little more important at guard than at RT. Plus, Foster's a walking false start. I have to believe that Loper--an experienced guard, a headier player, and possessing long-term upside--has a distinct advantage over Foster in winning the LG job.

Still, I'll take whoever brings it in camp. If Foster slides inside and starts blowing people up, then by all means, leave him in there!

Peace
Ty

TimT June 1, 2009 at 9:43 AM  

You forgot the biggest and most talented of all (save Cherilus).

Tuni Fonoti.

Mammoth and incredibly gifted, injury and weight has limited his career. He definitely belongs in this story as someone challenging Loper for the LG spot.

Three groups in order of value:
1. Loper and Cherilus... young players with opportunity and expectation.

2a. Jansen and Salaam... aging veterans in the decline of their careers.

2b. Foster and Fonoti... veterans with unrealized potential.

TimT June 1, 2009 at 9:45 AM  

BTW, that's a full ton of beef!

TimT June 1, 2009 at 11:01 AM  

So much for that. Foster's been cut.

Ty June 1, 2009 at 11:20 AM  

Tim--

I was a huge fan of Fonoti coming out of college; I really thought he could be the answer to the Lions' prayers at LG. Instead, we took Kalimba Edwards--which, considering their mutual careers up until this point, isn't all that bad.

Frankly, I'll believe that Toniu has turned the corner when I see it. Untapped potential? Absolutely. But the only thing that dwarfs the massive "potential" is exactly how "untapped" it is. This is the seventh roster he's been on since he was drafted seven years ago. He's never even resembled a solid NFL guard at any point in his professional career. Hence, I's put him in the Kirk Barton category: technically a big free agent that the Lions signed--but with no real chance to make an impact, and therefore not included in my analysis.

Killer article on the Foster cut:

http://www.mlive.com/lions/index.ssf/2009/06/lions_release_george_foster_jo.html

But, you know, maybe I'm wrong about Fonoti. I think the signings of Salaam and Jansen freed Loper up to play guard exclusively, and made Foster expendable at RT. Maybe Fonoti has looked good enough behind Loper that they saw no real need to even try to move Foster inside. I really really really hope that's the case, because Fonoti will be an All-Pro if he's unlocked even half of his potential.

Peace
Ty

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