Last season, the Old Mother Hubbard assessment of the Lions’ center position was so dire I dropped some Thomas Hobbes in the introduction. Dominic Raiola, the Lions’ only center of note, showed severe signs of regression in 2010. Here’s how I summed it up:
Dominic Raiola had his worst season in years, and possibly ever. Lions tailbacks had zero room to run inside in 2010, and Raiola dances on the edge of disaster in pass protection. His value is partly in recognizing defenses and calling protections, but these grades point to a disturbingly rapid decline in pure performance.
In the shopping list, I said the Lions "cannot afford to assume Raiola will bounce back, and be fine for years to come," and that they "need to acquire an impact starting center for 2012 and beyond."
The good news is, Raiola did indeed bounce back. Let's look at his 2011 performace, as graded by Pro Football Focus:
The top-rated center was Houston’s Chris Myers, who had an incredible season in the middle of the Texans’ line. Myers’s +29.8 was best amongst all centers, and well above the average of +1.4. Most of that was powered by Myers’ stonking +25.8 in the run game; his pass-blocking mark was a pedestrian +3.7.
The worst-graded center was Denver’s J.D. Walton. His appalling –23.4 run block grade, paired with a not-great –5.3 pass block grade, dropped him to the basement of the NFL: 35th overall at –28.9
Dominic Raiola fared much better. His –4.2 overall grade was ranked 24th of 35; just a bit below the average of +1.4. He had the 5th-worst run-block grade at –10.2, and his 6 assessed penalties dragged his score down, too. However, Raiola had a fantastic season protecting Matthew Stafford: his +6.4 mark was 4th-best in the NFL, well above the +0.7 average.
This is a huge step up from 2010. Raiola was graded out at -15.2 overall, and just as bad against the pass as he was against the run. In 2010, he was graded negatively in 9 of 17 games; in 2011 he finished in the red in just 6 of 18. The best part is, he only had one game where he was graded any lower than -1.5: Week 6 against San Francisco, where his -4.7 run block sunk the Lions' efforts to control the game.
Statistically, Raiola allowed 4 sacks and 10 pressures. Raiola allowed one of those three every 81 snaps—on average, 14th-best in the NFL and just below the average of 85.6. I suspect this is because I’m going per snap and not per pass play, but I don’t have that figure to divide by. For those wondering, Advanced NFL Stats does have -EPA and -WPA for offensive lines, but only as a group, not individually.
For another "eyeball test," there's the B/R 1000, a project where the top talent evaluators and draftniks over at Bleacher Report grade out the top 1,000 players in the NFL. Their report on Raiola perfectly dovetails with what the PFF staff saw: B/R ranks Raiola the 23rd-best center in the NFL. If you want a true scout's evaluation of where Raiola's game is at, read that.
Of course, all of this ignores the hidden benefits Lions coaches and staff are quick to bring up whenever Raiola is mentioned. Raiola is phenomenal at reading defenses and adjusting protections; he makes the entire offense more effective by calling protections and feeding Matthew Stafford information.
Beyond that, there’s his on-field and off-field leadership. There’s a reason Raiola wears a “C” on his chest. When the Lions needed someone to tell them to grow up, Raiola was there.
Unfortunately, the backup situation remains unchanged. There’s no one behind Raiola, either in the short-term or long-term picture. The Lions are in the second year of what is likely a 2-5 year championship window, and betting Raiola can keep playing at this level for the duration is a bad bet.
If they want to draft Raiola’s long-term replacement, but don’t want him to learn on the job, this year is the year.
BOTTOM LINE: Dominic Raiola turned in a typical performance in 2011: one of the best pass-blocking centers in the NFL, one of the worst run-blocking centers in the NFL, and a true leader who earns his captaincy. After eleven years in the NFL, he still rolls without a legitimate backup, and the Lions must plan for the future now.
SHOPPING LIST: The Lions must draft a talented long-term replacement for Raiola who can capably back up the center and guard positions.