Tale of the Tape for the Detroit Lions' Biggest Question Mark Heading into Camp

Dean HoldenAnalyst IJune 26, 2013

July 28, 2012; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tackles Riley Reiff (71) and  Corey Hilliard (78) complete drills during training camp at the Detroit Lions training facility. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever the Detroit Lions decide to start at right tackle to open the 2013 season, it will be his first NFL start in the month of September.

That's not terribly unusual, but it is unusual that Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard are looking for their first starting gigs entering their fourth and seventh seasons, respectively.

Fox was a 2010 fourth-round draft pick, Hilliard a 2009 free-agent signing who bounced around the Patriots, Colts and Browns organizations his first two years in the league. Fox has spent the majority of his career trying to get healthy and waiting for a chance to play, Hilliard has been a sparsely called-upon reserve player at both tackle positions.

Both players projected to right tackle, but incumbent Gosder Cherilus was playing too well to justify moving him out of the lineup. With Cherilus gone, however, the Lions can finally give these guys the shot they've been working for.

The only question left is, which one earns it? We can't say, so all that's left to do is measure what we do know about them, piece by piece.

What we know about Fox and Hilliard is limited. There is relatively little tape on either player, because neither has had many opportunities to actually play.

Here's what we know about these guys on the most basic level.

Hilliard has the edge when it comes to actual game experience, especially recently. Fox has only checked into a game once in the last two seasons. Hilliard has been in 16 games with a start in that span of time.

Both men are approximately the same height, with Fox coming in a little heavier, which will serve him well when run-blocking off the right edge.

On paper, it's pretty evenly matched. Hilliard's experience is as much a selling point as Fox's youth, and neither dominates in any physical area.

If there is a big difference between them, it's that Fox's combination of mid-round draft status and injuries earlier in his career make him still something of an unknown. The Lions have generally seen what they can expect from Hilliard, but Fox may still have some upside to realize.

The Lions seem to believe so, otherwise they wouldn't have kept him in the fold for a fourth year after doing effectively nothing in his first three.

The only showing Fox has really been able to make as a Lion was when he played against the Vikings as a rookie in place of an injured Gosder Cherilus. Here's the tape.

Overall, the results are not terribly encouraging. Despite a couple of pancake blocks, Fox looks tentative, sometimes lost.

But then, what you see here is a rookie who spent most of his first year rehabbing and building strength in an injured left leg. What we will see in training camp is a fourth-year veteran who should be as physically and mentally prepared to perform as he ever will be.

Because he is an unknown, Fox may have the advantage going into this matchup. Lions coaches have repeatedly said they like him, with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan saying last December, "I see him playing a lot of football for us next year" according to Justin Rogers of MLive.com.

The Lions don't generally believe in tipping their offseason plans—or any plans about anything at all. But it certainly sounds like, even before the end of the 2012 regular season, the Lions were fully comfortable with having Fox take the place of Cherilus.

How else would Fox "play a lot of football" for the Lions, considering that Linehan's statement was made at a time when Cherilus was still on the team heading into free agency, and Fox was slated to be a restricted free agent?

If they didn't expect to replace Cherilus with Fox, then they must have either predicted Jeff Backus' retirement, or thought to move him to guard. And that still doesn't explain how he would have played in front of Riley Reiff.

Reading too much into one statement? Perhaps. But it certainly seems that the Lions are on board with Fox, despite their decision to give both players equal reps in training camp as reported by Anwar Richardson of MLive.com.

In terms of play, it's hard to give either player an edge. Neither has had consistent playing time, and both have approximately equal positional versatility.

That means this is going to be the best kind of roster battle: the kind that is decided solely on training camp performance. Whoever performs consistently better between the end of July and the beginning of September should be the starting right tackle. At this point, things like salary and draft status (things that often conflate decisions on who should and should not start) are almost irrelevant.

It's a head-to-head battle of skills, with the winner getting his first true starting job, and the loser remaining on the roster in the same reserve-type role he's had for years.