Lions rookie running back Steven Miller, left, runs and talks with fellow running back Reggie Bush after practice. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Allen Park — Matthew Stafford likely will be better. Calvin Johnson keeps getting better. Reggie Bush is a better big-play option than anyone the Lions could dig up last year.
Add the return of receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles and the Lions’ offense should be highly productive. In fact, I’d declare all sorts of gaudy possibilities if I knew the answer to one little question. And by “little question,” I mean “gigantic question.”
Will the revamped offensive line be any good?
This is where most debates about this team begin and end, in familiar trenches with unfamiliar faces. When the Lions open the exhibition season tonight at Ford Field against the Jets, the crowd will watch Stafford and Johnson play catch for a series or two, and hope to see the first dazzling Bush flash.
But if the fans are smart — and perhaps bored — they’ll tear their eyes away from Megatron and focus on, say, Dylan Gandy. Or tackles Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox. Or — big one here — Riley Reiff. I know, not thrilling. But they could be among three new starters on the offensive line, and for all the high-priced tinkering elsewhere, the Lions basically are trying to restock their line with spare parts on hand, parts unknown.
Renovation certainly was necessary, but it’s still the gamble of the season, and it’s impossible to tell yet if it will work. Gone are Jeff Backus (retired), Stephen Peterman (released and now with the Jets) and Gosder Cherilus (signed by the Colts). Back are left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola, with spirited competition at right guard and right tackle.
Reiff, the first-round pick a year ago, is the one who could make the difference, taking over at left tackle. He alternately looked dominant and confused in spot duty last season, but whatever the Lions lost by dismantling a veteran line, they could gain in feisty talent.
'A fresh start'
“We got a fresh start with guys that are hungry to make a mark in this league,” Sims said. “And Riley’s the least of our worries. He’s a good player, and he’s gonna be a great player.”
That was the idea when the Lions drafted Reiff 23rd overall out of Iowa. But because the line had so much continuity and durability, he couldn’t break in. For all the criticism, the line was tactically sound. Stafford was sacked 29 times, but the Lions had the top-ranked adjusted sack rate (3.7 percent of passes) in the league.
The Lions also had no running game, no short-yardage game and no power game. We can fairly question backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, and Bush’s speed will open up plenty. But when it was apparent the Lions were redoing their line, I doubt fans openly wept about it.
The truth is, the line was decent in some areas but not a difference-maker. If it can at least be decent, the Lions have enough skilled players to mask deficiencies.
“I’ve been on some makeshift lines before, and that is not us,” said Raiola, in his 13th season here. “These guys have been here, just waiting for their chance. I have total confidence in whoever wins those jobs, and total confidence in myself and Rob that we’re gonna lead this group. I’m not the least bit worried.”
Deep down, Jim Schwartz and his staff have to be a tad anxious. There’s no evidence yet the line is a problem, and training camp reviews are mostly positive. But everyone will be interested tonight to see if Stafford stays upright, with clean passing lanes.
The Lions didn’t just shuffle personnel, either. They altered the staff, promoting Jeremiah Washburn to replace George Yarno as offensive line coach and bringing in Curtis Modkins to work on the running game. It’s no secret Peterman and Backus were slowed by age and injury, and there’s a stronger emphasis on improving inside protection to alleviate pressure on Stafford.
The issue is, can this new group compensate for the experience deficit? Gandy, 31, has started five games in four seasons with the Lions. Hilliard, 28, also has five starts in four seasons and was inactive all of 2012. Fox was the Lions’ fourth-round pick in 2010 but has barely played because of injuries. Larry Warford was a third-round pick this year but is running third at right guard.
Offensive linemen are accustomed to — and generally appreciative of — anonymity, but these guys will lose that cloak, one way or another. Outside of Reiff, there isn’t a first-round pick in the bunch, but the Lions were confident enough to stick with them.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt the pieces are there,” Schwartz said. “We have good competition, but that race won’t be finished for some time.”
The Lions were pretty good last season at merrily skipping down the field, then stalling near the goal line. With Stafford and Johnson and the fancy passing, they had an unpredictable flightiness, and need more sturdiness. That’s why they pushed ahead with the offensive line renovation.
Sometimes you have to tear down to build up, and they’re banking on a relatively quick fix. So while you gawk at the Lions’ shiny exterior, be sure to check out those freshly painted interior walls. If they don’t stay standing, not much else will.