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Lions bulk up for future with highly touted Iowa tackle Riley Reiff

By Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press –

NEW YORK — The Lions’ aging, underappreciated offensive line got a face-lift in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday when Iowa’s Riley Reiff, the consensus second-best offensive tackle, slipped to No. 23.

The Lions wasted little time turning their card in for Reiff, who can play several positions but becomes the heir apparent to Jeff Backus at left tackle.

“Words can’t describe how happy I am right now,” Reiff said. “I’m super excited to be a Lion. I really can’t put into words what I’m actually feeling but I’m excited. The Lions are a great team and it’ll be great seasons ahead.”

Backus, a first-round pick in 2011, has never missed a game in his 11 seasons but is coming off two major injuries last year and turns 35 in September. He tore a pectoral muscle last summer while working out during the lockout, and had surgery in January after tearing his biceps in the Lions’ playoff loss to the Saints.

In taking Reiff, the Lions passed on blue-chip guard prospect David DeCastro of Stanford, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn and Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus.

They explored several trade options earlier in the day in the hopes of moving up to select a defensive back, their biggest weakness, but decided to stay put after cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Stephon Gilmore and safety Mark Barron went in the top 10.

Reiff is the first offensive lineman the Lions have taken in the first round since right tackle Gosder Cherilus went 17th overall in 2008. General manager Martin Mayhew has taken at least one lineman in each of his four drafts: seventh-rounders Johnny Culbreath (last year) and Lydon Murtha (in 2009), fourth-rounder Jason Fox (in 2010) and Reiff.

A Parkston, S.D., native, Reiff left Iowa after his redshirt junior season, when he started all 13 games at left tackle, and was projected as a top 10 pick in the weeks leading up to the draft.

Last year, the Lions landed another top-10 projection, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, when he unexpectedly fell on draft day.

Reiff can play either guard or tackle * he started games at both tackle spots and left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009 before taking over the left-tackle job permanently the following year — and should compete for playing time as a rookie even though the Lions return their entire starting line for the third straight year.

There was little drama at the top of the draft, where quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III went first and second overall as has been expected for months, but plenty of movement elsewhere in a wild top 10.

The Colts made Luck, who threw for 9,430 career yards at Stanford, the fourth straight quarterback to go No. 1 overall. Carolina took Cam Newton with the top pick last year, the Rams chose Sam Bradford atop the draft in 2010, and the Lions took Matthew Stafford No. 1 a year earlier.

Luck is considered the best quarterback prospect since at least Peyton Manning in 1998, and maybe since John Elway in 1983. The Colts picked both players, but traded Elway to the Broncos.

The Lions host Luck and the Colts on Dec. 2 this year.

“Those shoes to fill are huge,” Luck said of replacing Manning, who was released earlier this year. “I’m not going to go crazy trying to do everything that Peyton did. I realize we’re different personalities so I’ll put my best foot forward and try to work hard every day. If one day I can be mentioned alongside Peyton in quarterback history, it would be a football dream come true.”

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