Detroit loads up on linemen
Lions plug holes up front with OT Backus, C Raiola
Updated: Sunday April 22, 2001 12:00 AM
PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) -- Matt Millen's first two picks as the Detroit Lions' president may not excite many people, but they address huge holes on the offensive line.
The Lions picked Michigan offensive tackle Jeff Backus with the 18th pick and Nebraska center Dominic Raiola in the second round, with the 50th pick.
"I think we've had two great picks," Millen said. "Big-time programs. Big-time players that played in big games. Anytime you can get the top-rated center and one of the top offensive tackles out there you have to be pleased.
"We solidified an area that needed solidifying. I couldn't be more pleased."
Detroit moved up to draft Texas defensive tackle Shaun Rogers in the second round with the 61st overall choice, by trading its third- and fourth-round choices to the New York Giants.
The Lions had to replace three starters on the offensive line after deciding not to re-sign guard Jeff Hartings and center Mike Compton and cutting tackle Ray Roberts.
The Lions hope they filled those holes as they begin a new era with Millen, player personnel director Bill Tobin and coach Marty Mornhinweg.
They didn't make it a secret that they liked three former Michigan linemen: Backus, Steve Hutchinson and Maurice Williams.
Hutchinson was drafted by Seattle one pick before Backus.
"We liked both Hutchinson and Backus and we're very happy to have Jeff Backus," Mornhinweg said.
"We are really excited to have a Michigan lineman here with the Detroit Lions for a lot of different reasons," Millen said. "We couldn't have gone wrong with that pick or the pick prior to that [Hutchinson]. We liked both those Michigan guys.
"It's a good building block and one we're excited about."
The Midland-born Backus was excited to be drafted by the Lions.
"I think it's great," he said. "I think it's going to be a great opportunity for myself. ... I'm just excited to be going back to Michigan."
The Lions will likely move Backus, Stockar McDougle or Aaron Gibson to guard.
Backus said his first preference is to play left tackle, but he believes he can play guard if the Lions want him to.
"I played all my college career there [at left tackle] and that's where all my experience is," he said. "But if they ask me to switch, I have no problem doing it."
Mornhinweg said the Lions will explore two or three scenarios to rearrange the offensive line.
"We don't need a starting offensive line April 21," Mornhinweg said. "There are a few possibilities and we'll leave it at that. The main key is we took an offensive line and we automatically made it better with a terrific first-round player."
Tobin said there's a lot to like about the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Backus.
"Technically he's really sound," Tobin said. "He's an outstanding left tackle right now. Usually, you don't get that in a college player coming into the NFL that is as technically sound as he is."
Backus started at left tackle for four years at Michigan, where he was an All-Big Ten player each season.
The Lions said they didn't try to trade up to get Hutchinson or any other player, but did consider trading down.
"We were talking to some teams about backing up a little bit and possibly getting a third- or fourth-round pick," Tobin said.
Tobin said there were 13 players with whom the Lions would've been comfortable with their first-round choice. He declined to name them all, but did say Miami receiver Santana Moss, taken by the New York Jets with the 16th pick, was one of them.
Last fall at Nebraska, Raiola was an All-American and a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. When he earned all-conference honors as a sophomore, he became the first Cornhusker to do so since Dave Rimington in 1980.
The 6-1, 303-pounder will have an opportunity to challenge Eric Beverly for a starting job next season.
Raiola said he's excited to be a part of the Lions' reshaping efforts up front.
"I think that's going to make it special for me to be a part of the rebuilding," he said.
The Lions signed free agent offensive lineman Brenden Stai to a five-year contract last month. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Stai was Pittsburgh's third-round draft choice in 1995 and also has played for Kansas City and Jacksonville.
Rogers slipped in the draft because of concerns about a right ankle, which was surgically repaired after last season. The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder made 44 tackles despite playing the last eight games with an ankle sprain. He was an All-Big 12 player as a junior after making 80 tackles.
"We think it's well worth the risk," Tobin said. "He has a chance to be a very special player in this league."
Millen said he had called numerous teams to get in position to draft Rogers. "You can't pass on a player like that."