Free Agent Duel: Cherilus or Houston?
In 2012 the Detroit Lions looked more like the Lions of old than the team we saw reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1990’s in 2011. They head into the offseason searching for answers on how to get back to the postseason, but with a roster filled with question marks. Six starters from their 2012 defense are scheduled to become free agents, and admittedly some of them aren’t worthy of being re-signed. Their highest-graded free agents on either side of the ball are offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus and cornerback Chris Houston and, in another edition of Free Agent Duels, PFF analysts Gordon McGuinness and Pete Damilatis debate who should be the bigger priority for the Lions this offseason.
Why it has to be Cherilus
By Gordon McGuinness
After a disappointing season where they regressed after a playoff appearance in 2011, the Lions would be foolish to allow their best offensive lineman leave town. Cherilus’ strong season which was his best since entering the league as a first round draft pick out of Boston College in 2008 might have come as a surprise to some. However, if you look back at his career over the past few years he has shown himself capable of a season like this. He finished the 2011 regular season with an overall grade of +3.2, however, that grade was massively swayed by a horrible performance against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14. That game, and the Week 3 encounter with the Vikings were the only two games of the year where he really struggled.
This past season, the Vikings failed to get the better of him, with Cherilus allowing just three quarterback hurries from 107 pass blocking snaps in two games against them. His pass blocking is his strength, and has been since he entered the league, with his 38 total pressures allowed from 787 pass blocking snaps giving him a Pass Blocking Efficiency rating of 96.3, good enough for 10th among all offensive tackles, and second-best among right tackles in 2012. From those 38 total pressures, he allowed his quarterback to be knocked down (hit or sacked) just 11 times, working out at once every 71.5 drop-backs.
While it’s his pass blocking where he makes his name, and this offseason his money, Cherilus improved as a run blocker in 2012, with his Run Blocking grade of +1.6 his highest since 2009. He’s not a dominant run blocker but he’s not awful either and, considering the type of offense he’s part of in Detroit, that’s good enough. Indeed, Cherilus’ 787 snaps in pass protection were 83 more that the next highest by an offensive tackle. When you’re throwing the ball that often and you’ve got a quarterback who has had his struggles staying on the field, it doesn’t make sense to let your best pass blocker leave town.
While this appears to be a strong free agent class of offensive tackles, with top quality players and solid veterans alike, it’s worth bearing in mind that the two at the top, Denver’s Ryan Clady and Cincinnati’s Andre Smith are likely to see the franchise tag if they don’t agree to long-term deals, making Cherilus the top name on the market. If they can’t get a long-term deal done, the Lions should be hitting him with a franchise tag of his own.
Why it Shouldn’t be Cherilus
By Pete Damilatis
As a BC alumnus myself, I’m proud to have seen Cherilus gradually develop into one of the top right tackles in the NFL. However personnel decisions can’t be made in a vacuum, and the Lions are in a good position to move on without him. Cherilus isn’t without his flaws. Gordon has already mentioned his deficiencies in the running game, as his career -3.2 run block grade isn’t ideal for what coaches traditionally look for in a right tackle. And on a team with major discipline problems, Cherilus’ nine penalties last season didn’t help. Despite his impressive pass-blocking skills, Detroit doesn’t need to pay a premium for a one-dimensional tackle, especially when they already have a successor lined up.
The Lions used last year’s first round draft pick on Riley Reiff, and they’d like to start reaping the rewards. The rookie out of Iowa earned a +6.4 run block grade while playing just 27.3 percent of the Lions’ offensive snaps as an extra blocker and injury reserve. Detroit is searching for a the man to succeed ironman Jeff Backus at left tackle, but Reiff may not be it. In two games on the blindside this season, the rookie earned a -3.3 run block grade, incurred three penalties, and allowed seven quarterback pressures. Given his run-blocking skills, Reiff looks to be better suited to be the Lions’ starting right tackle come September.
If Backus returns for one more season, then the Lions should draft a promising left tackle in a draft plentiful with them. If Backus retires, then the Lions should spend their money in an intriguing free agent market. Either way, devoting a big contract to a right tackle, even one as good as Cherilus, just doesn’t make sense for Detroit.
Why it has to be Houston
By Pete Damilatis
While depth at offensive tackle will allow the Lions to move on without Cherilus, a complete black hole at cornerback makes Chris Houston a must-sign. Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew shrewdly traded for Houston back in 2010, after the Atlanta Falcons’ big signing of Dunta Robinson made the fourth-year cornerback expendable. Since then, Houston has emerged as the Lions’ best defensive back on a team that lacks many good ones.
Houston’s +5.2 overall grade in 2011 and +7.4 grade in 2012 led all members of the Detroit secondary. While Lions DBs kept dropping like flies last season, Houston was the only one to play more than 60 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps. He was targeted once every 5.8 coverage snaps in 2012, yet only allowed 11.9 yards per catch and a 78.7 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. In addition he held his own versus the run, as his +3.4 run defense grade was in the Top 10 at his position.
Houston’s solid numbers look even better when compared to his peers in Detroit. Jacob Lacey and Drayton Florence, in the limited games they were healthy, surrendered 111.7 and 98.1 passer ratings in coverage, respectively. Third-round rookie draft pick Dwight Bentley was lost for the season early, but not before surrendering 165 yards and committing five penalties in four games. Jonte Green allowed as many touchdowns as Houston did (three) in half the playing time. Among all Lions cornerbacks with over 100 coverage snaps, Houston was the only one to allow less than 60 percent of the passes into his coverage to be completed.
Houston’s asking price may be a bit higher than he’s worth, especially after former teammate Eric Wright signed a completely undeserved five-year, $38 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. With a hodgepodge of second-year projects and injury-prone veterans at their cornerback position, the Lions will be sitting ducks for Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler if they go into next season without their best corner.
Why it shouldn’t be Houston
By Gordon McGuinness
I completely agree with Pete that the Lions need to get themselves ready for the likes of Rodgers and Cutler in the NFC North in 2013, where I disagree is that Houston is the player they need to keep around to do that. He was our highest-graded player in the Detroit secondary in 2012, but did he really play that well? Seeing his first start in Week 3, Houston allowed a reception of 20 yards or more in six of his 14 starts. In games against Rodgers and Cutler, he got his hands on just one of the 25 passes thrown into his coverage, giving up 10 receptions for 163 yards in the process. He finished the year tied for 36th among all cornerbacks, giving up a reception once every 10.6 snaps in coverage. He may have been the Lions’ best cornerback, but they certainly have options out there this free agency to upgrade the position and move on from Houston.
Cherlius may not be the run blocker that many expect from a right tackle, but his value to the Detroit passing game is too valuable to let him leave, in my opinion. The Lions simply can’t afford to let Matt Stafford be hit too often and Cherilus is too good to let go in that regard. Pete pointed to his nine penalties a year ago, and he’s right that it’s too many. In comparison Riley Reiff, who would likely start in his place, had five penalties in a little over a quarter of the snaps, so that’s not a reason to start him over Cherilus. Reiff’s poor run blocking grade in his time at left tackle is heavily weighted by a poor performance against the Houston Texans, and he showed himself to be a better pass blocker than current left tackle Jeff Backus. For me, the ideal scenario for the Lions’ offensive line would see Backus replaced by Reiff, with Cherilus being retained on the opposite side.