We've known the possibility has existed for most of this offseason, but in the midst of the NFL's free-agent frenzy, the news still came as a surprise. Jeff Backus announced his retirement, meaning the Lions will enter the 2013 season with a different left tackle for the first time in 13 years.
I know Backus took some heat from Lions fans over the years, but the nature of his career speaks to how difficult it is to fill the left tackle position. Regardless of any mid-career struggles he might have had, he played in 192 of a possible 193 games -- including playoffs -- after the Lions made him their first-round draft pick in 2001. His departure will transition the Lions' offensive line makeover into an outright overhaul this offseason.
Already the Lions have bid farewell to right guard Stephen Peterman (via release) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus (via free agency). Center Dominic Raiola took a significant pay cut to remain with the team, and 2013 could be his final season with the team. Left guard Rob Sims is the only other established starter.
But before filling the right tackle and right guard positions, the Lions must prioritize Backus' replacement -- and decide whether it merits a push to the top of their draft strategy.
One option, of course, is 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff, who played left tackle at Iowa and made one start there as a rookie last season. But the Lions have never committed to Reiff as their long-term plan at left tackle, at least not publicly. At the NFL scouting combine last month, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz the Lions have said they were considering their options for Reiff's final destination, one of which includes right guard.
That was before Backus' retirement, of course, but when you are a bona fide left tackle in the NFL, there is never much of a conversation about whether you should play there or right guard.
If Reiff isn't the answer, the Lions could take advantage of their draft position at No. 5 overall and pick the best left tackle available, whether it is Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan's Eric Fisher. For what it's worth, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Fisher as the best left tackle available, followed by Joeckel and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson.
In a way, the Lions are fortunate that Backus retired at a time when they had a high-enough draft position to ensure a blue-chip replacement if that's what they want. Consider it his final contribution to the team.