Previewing some of the big decisions facing NFC North teams early in the 2012 offseason:
Earlier this month, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew suggested he was entering "probably the most challenging offseason so far" of his tenure. His team has salary-cap issues at a time when some important players are approaching free agency, and the Lions also have a conundrum at a key position with no clear answer in view.
Veteran left tackle Jeff Backus had major surgery Jan. 9 after tearing a biceps muscle late in the Lions' season-ending playoff loss at the New Orleans Saints. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, and the Lions don't have an obvious heir apparent to promote.
Backus will turn 35 in September, and the Lions will have to replace him at some point in the next few years. Will the injury, their cap situation and the occasion of his expiring contract accelerate the timetable? Mayhew said he wants Backus to return, but it's only fair to point out that general managers always say that at this time of year.
All indications suggest Backus' arm will be healed by the start of training camp. He hasn't missed a game in 11 NFL seasons, and the one player who might qualify as a potential replacement has appeared in only four games in two NFL seasons. Jason Fox, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, has impressed the Lions in between injuries but can hardly be relied on as a starter entering training camp in 2012.
So unless they can grab a promising (and healthy) left tackle in the 2012 draft, the Lions might have no choice but to wait out Backus' rehabilitation and re-sign him as training camp approaches. He won't come cheap, having earned about $6.5 million in 2011, but even a cap-strapped team will have a hard time going cheap at the left tackle position.
The good news is that Backus finished the 2011 season well after a partially torn pectoral muscle seemed to limit him early on. Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades each block by NFL offensive linemen and gave Backus its highest grade among left tackles in the NFC North. He allowed seven sacks on the season, but five came in two games during the first half of the season, according to PFF.
The Lions just got franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford through the first 16-game season of his career. Chances are they won't risk a shaky situation with Stafford's backside protector anytime soon.