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Published: Tuesday, 4/23/2013

Lions must bolster lines after losses

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

This is shaping up to be the OLD, but that doesn’t mean same old, same old. In an NFL draft short up top on premier skill position players, Thursday night’s first round could signal the start of the Offensive Line draft.

Specifically, there are some standout offensive tackles. If the Detroit Lions can get one as good as the one they lost, there’s no chance of a first-round bust.

Jeff Backus, the team’s first-round pick in 2001, retired after a 12-year career that saw him start 186 consecutive games at left tackle.

He was all work ethic, little flash, and he was entrusted with guarding his quarterback’s blind side, which he did extremely well. But Backus was underappreciated, perhaps because he toiled through some of the franchise’s darkest days, months, years. His absence, though, should be far less appreciated.

In addition to Backus’ retirement, the Lions saw another former first-round pick — tackle Gosder Cherilus — leave as a free agent and sign with Indianapolis.

So does Detroit have any choice but to take an offensive tackle with the fifth overall pick in the first round?

Well, yes, I suppose. There are always choices.

The Lions lost defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and there some awfully good candidates at that position. A leaky pass defense has a big need at cornerback, and Alabama’s Dee Milliner is the most physical corner in the draft. They would love to complement wide receiver Calvin Johnson, although that surely isn’t a first-round option unless Detroit trades way down.

There are three massive offensive tackles who have separated themselves — Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma — and if any of the three are still available at No. 5, which is not automatic, then the Lions should go that route for the second straight year. Remember, they took Iowa tackle Riley Reiff in last year’s first round with an eye on the future. Well, the future is now, and Detroit still seeks a stud for the trenches.

The need at defensive end/outside linebacker may not be as urgent, since free agent Jason Jones was signed to help replace Avril, but an impact pass rusher is also a rare commodity. And there are two workout stars in the elite group that have fascinated a number of teams, including the Lions.

One is Dion Jordan of Oregon, who could be the best pass rusher in the draft and mixes in a pass coverage range that is exceptional for his 6-foot-6 stature. Another is Ezekiel (Ziggy) Ansah of BYU, whose story is intriguing.

A native of Ghana, he came to the United States in 2008 with hopes of playing basketball and competing in track.

The 6-5 Ansah ended up on BYU’s football team and has filled out to 271 pounds with a combination of size, length, and foot speed that is startling. But he started for just one year and compiled stats that were good, not great. He is still raw, but he is an infatuating talent.

The Lions could go that route and, with two picks among the top 36, what eludes them in the first round should be there in the second.

That could include options like Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson, SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, Boise State corner Jamar Taylor, and receivers Robert Woods of Southern California and/or Justin Hunter of Tennessee.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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