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.