(ALLEN PARK) - Sure it's just a three day minicamp, but you come away from it thinking that the 2003 edition of the Detroit Lions are going to be better, much better than last season.
OK, granted, everyone has optimism after the NFL draft and especially when you sign a significant number of unrestricted players to your squad, but on first glance there appears to be real reason for Lions fans to have hope this season -- and for three reasons; speed, depth and talent.
Speed: The team is without question faster than it was last year. The acquisition of Dre' Bly makes the secondary faster than it was a season ago. Bly is able to lock down on opposing receivers and isn't afraid to break on the ball. Hopefully that will rub off on second year men Chris Cash and Andre Goodman.
First round draft choice Charles Rogers is a speed burner. He comes off the line of scrimmage so quickly it's astounding. Sixth round pick David Kircus appears to have the early lead to backup the speedy Bill Schroeder. Linebackers Boss Bailey and Wali Rainer showed good sideline-to sideline quickness. Bailey may be the fastest linebacker in the NFL.
Depth: Unlike the bare-thin rosters Detroit strung together in Marty Mornhinweg's two-year tenure, this roster has depth at a few key positions. While areas such as the offensive line, corner and safety could still use a few more players, the Lions have some areas of real strength.
At quarterback Joey Harrington is the unquestioned leader, Mike McMahon is a solid backup, Ty Detmer is a wily veteran, emergency quarterback and Grand Valley State record setter Curt Anes is likely to end up on Detroit's practice squad.
At running back 1,000-yard rusher James Stewart leads a deep group including holdovers Luke Staley, Rafael Cooper and NFL Europe star Autry Denson. Joining the competition is undrafted free agent Avon Cobourne, who showed shiftiness and tackle breaking ability, fourth round draft pick Artrose Pinner of Kentucky and unrestricted free agent signee Shawn Bryson.
While Detroit will likely sign another veteran free agent wide receiver at the end of the month, Charles Rogers, Bill Schroeder, Scotty Anderson, David Kircus and Az-Zahir Hakim give Detroit a speedy group provided Hakim returns successfully from a hip injury that ended his 2002 season.
No position on the squad is as deep as Detroit's linebacking group. Earl Holmes and Wali Rainer will man the middle and fifth round pick James Davis of West Virginia will likely join them in that group. Second round pick Boss Bailey will start at the strong side position with Barrett Green returning to his familiar weak side spot. Contending for backup roles are Jeff Gooch, Chaz Murphy, Jody Littleton, Brian Williams, Ken Philpot, Richard "Dirt" Jordan and Josh Thornhill.
Talent: Detroit has added talent across the board. Gone from the receiving group is oft-injured Germane Crowell, in are Rogers and Kircus. Missing in the linebacker core are talented but speed-challenged Chris Claiborne (Minnesota) and Clint Kriewaldt (Pittsburgh), in are speedy second-round pick Bailey and proven talents Rainer and Holmes.
The addition of Bailey at the strong side automatically makes Detroit's linebacking corps better on paper. Bly's playmaking ability lifts the secondary. Rogers and Kircus do the same for the receiving corps. Pinner likely will be better than Aveion Cason, last year's backup running back.
Overall: While this is just the first glance and nothing has been settled on the field. You can tell that these are not last year's 3-13 Lions. It appears that Lions' president Matt Millen and head coach Steve Mariucci have put together a group of players that could actually contend for a playoff spot in 2003.
While that may seem to be stretching things a little, consider that other than Green Bay, no team from the NFC North was above .500 last season. This year's edition of the Detroit Lions may be ready to change all of that.