Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is now an unrestricted free agent, and the Lions face an interesting decision about how vigorously to try and bring him back.
The case for keeping him:
–Cherilus has emerged as one of the best all-around right tackles in the league over the last couple of seasons. The good folks at Pro Football Focus rated Cherilus as the 7th best tackle regardless of side in 2012, and he was in the upper half of both overall tackles and right tackles in 2011 as well. He rates in the top 7 of all right tackles in that timeframe in QB sacks allowed per dropback, and his run blocking is solidly middle of the pack. Cherilus is also in the upper half in accepted penalties, a pleasant development after his early seasons were marred by yellow flags.
–The offensive line continuity last season was nothing short of remarkable. All five starters were together for 15 of the 16 games, and Cherilus has missed just four games in the last three seasons. In a league where durability and continuity are at a premium, Cherilus gives the Lions a healthy dose of both.
–The depth behind him is also hitting free agency. Corey Hilliard is now an unrestricted free agent as well, as is top interior reserve Dylan Gandy. Jason Fox, ostensibly the 4th tackle if he is ever healthy, is a restricted free agent. The Lions do not have the budget to bring back depth free agents; all figure to be replaced by cheaper, younger players.
–He is hitting the market at a relative glut of offensive tackle talent. The draft is rich, but free agency also looks very strong this winter. Jake Long, Branden Albert, Andre Smith, and Phil Loadholt are all at least as valuable as Cherilus on the open market. Sam Baker and Sebastian Vollmer will command similar attention to Cherilus as well. It’s rare that so many legitimate tackles ever hit free agency at the same time. The saturation of the market means Cherilus will not command as much money as a player of his caliber would have the last few offseasons. That’s a boon to the cap-challenged Lions.
The case for letting him walk:
–Jeff Backus continues to defy father time on the left side. He missed a start in 2012 for the first time in a decade, but Backus remains a viable NFL left tackle for at least one more year. The last three seasons have been the best of his career.
–Riley Reiff was the team’s first round pick in 2012 and appears eminently capable of taking over for Cherilus right away. He played less than anticipated but proved a devastatingly effective run blocker as an extra tackle. The Lions drafted him in part to have some leverage and flexibility here.
–If any of the reserves are coming back, it’s Fox. Several offensive coaches have gone out of their way to praise Fox in each of the last three seasons, but he has played just one game in two years because of injuries. The team is still bullish on him, with former line assistant coach George Yarno saying he believed Fox can start in the NFL.
–As stated above, this draft is very rich in NFL tackle talent. Fifth overall is no-man’s land as Luke Joeckel will be gone and in no way is Eric Fisher worthy, but there will be viable candidates in the second and third rounds. Two to watch at the top of the third: Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead and Jordan Mills from Louisiana Tech. Both have yet to play their best football and both play with an aggression and combative persona. If the Lions are tempted, Kyle Long from Oregon would be a bit of a reach at the top of the second but it’s not unfathomable.
–The salary cap limitations. With so many defensive starters hitting free agency, spending big on a right tackle is a tough sell. Chris Houston, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant, and perhaps even Lawrence Jackson are going to be higher priorities. This is an offseason of painful decisions, a byproduct of the astronomical contracts of Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and especially Calvin Johnson. Those three players alone will take up nearly $52 million of a projected $121M cap, and Kyle VandenBosch costs at least $5M even if he’s released or retires.
Cherilus is going to look for a deal in the range of what Donald Penn got in Tampa in a similar situation, which is 6 yrs/$41.7M. At minimum he will command what Eric Winston got from Kansas City, 4 yrs/$22M in one of the most freakishly cap friendly deals. If Cherilus really wants to stay, that is the kind of deal he will need, a back-loaded offer that costs $3M in 2013 but bring pain later. I highly doubt Cherilus will accept that. Somebody will offer him 4 yrs/$30M, right or wrong. That’s an offer than Detroit simply cannot afford.