What started out as unbridled optimism has begun to morph into restrained hopefulness, tinged with real concern for the upcoming Detroit Lions season.
Since last week’s abysmal loss in Cleveland — where head coach Jim Schwartz essentially said the Lions were terrible — our gridiron gladiators have vowed a better effort Thursday against the New England “Tom Brady” Patriots at Ford Field.
Unlike the many fans who have expressed their anxiety to me, I’m not all that freaked out by the Lions’ play. I’ve watched them practice, and my somewhat trained eye has convinced me that they have some talent.
But there’s one area that has me on edge: offensive line.
Despite all the Lions’ talent upgrades, if their offensive line is subpar, they’re in big trouble. They won’t sustain drives because they’ll have an anemic running game, and Matthew Stafford will have to discover all kinds of funky angles to throw a football while trying to avoid getting sacked.
The individual who should be held responsible if the O-line implodes is GM Martin Mayhew, who joined the Lions in 2001 and has been their GM since Matt “The Destroyer” Millen was fired four games into the infamous 2008 season.
Since Mayhew has been part of the Lions’ hierarchy, they’ve drafted 13 offensive linemen: nine tackles, three guards and one center. Three of the 13 — Jeff Backus (2001), Gosder Cherilus (2008) and Riley Reiff (2012) — were first-round picks.
As of now, only four of the 13 — Reiff, Dominic Raiola, Jason Fox and rookie Larry Warford — are on their roster.
There are several ways to build a team, but unless you lay a foundation through the draft and develop your picks, your chances of being good aren’t very good.
Behind the scenes Mayhew has been an aggressive GM. He’s made significant trades, signed impactful free agents, claimed contributing players off waivers, and taken risks with the draft.
His overall drafting, though, has been suspect. His first three first-round picks — Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley — were obvious choices and have been celebrated. His last two first-round picks — Reiff and Ezekiel Ansah — are a little more uncertain.
Ansah has been a pleasant surprise at defensive end and is part of a unit that has depth, giving him time to develop.
Reiff doesn’t have that luxury. He must emerge as a starter with Pro Bowl-caliber talent. In fact, if you want to boil Mayhew’s draft legacy down to one player, it’s Reiff.
For the most part, the Lions have tried to retool their O-line through trades and the waiver wire. Six of their 13 O-line picks were taken after the fourth round, and none of those six is still with the team.
Putting the O-line on the back burner for several drafts coupled with a Reiff flameout could quite possibly end Mayhew’s career in Detroit.