STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Although the Lions remain optimistic that DT Luther Elliss' torn pectoral muscles will not keep him out of the season opener Sept. 7 against Arizona, there is at least a chance they will sign another DT as insurance.Veteran Kelvin Pritchett could handle the job on a short term basis and the Lions have additional backup in youngsters Antwan Lake and rookie Cory Redding, their third-round pick in April.
Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci seems more concerned with having enough defensive line bodies to get through training camp than he is about the possibility of Elliss missing the start of the regular season.
The Lions have told 40-year-old guard Ray Brown he won't be required to participate in the first week of training camp. They want to keep his legs fresh and sort out the candidates for offensive line backup positions behind him.
DRAFT PICK ANALYSIS
Rd. 1/2, WR Charles Rogers, Michigan State -- Made an excellent first impression in minicamp before being sidelined with a hamstring. Has the size, speed and receiving ability to excel. Just a question of how soon.
Rd. 3/66, DE Cory Redding, Texas -- A high-energy defensive end who might be able to play inside also. Should contribute as a rookie.
Rd. 4/99, RB Artose Pinner, Kentucky -- Still recovering from a broken leg suffered late in the Senior Bowl game. Will probably start training camp on PUP but the Lions expect contributions from him either later this year or next year.
Rd. 6/175, WR David Kircus, Grand Valley State -- Has to learn how to use his speed but convinced Lions coaches he can make the transition from Division II to the NFL. Should compete for the No. 4 WR job with speed and ability to make the spectacular catch.
Rd. 7/220, CB Blue Adams, Cincinnati -- Reads and reacts well. One of the guys coaches want to see in pads to make an accurate evaluation.
Rd. 7/236, FB Brandon Drumm, Colorado -- Will be starting basically from scratch in training camp after being limited by a hamstring during minicamp. A blocking fullback who might help on special teams.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
Joey Harrington's rookie season wasn't pretty. He moved into the starting job two games into the season, completed barely 50 percent of his passes, threw more interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (12), compiled the worst passer rating of any other NFL starter (59.9) and missed the final two games of the season with an irregular heartbeat. The heartbeat was corrected with a minor surgical procedure and the Lions are hoping that experience will correct the flaws in Harrington's passing game. Only time will tell, but new coach Steve Mariucci threw a lot at Harrington during the off-season minicamps and is on the record saying he expects to see a major improvement from Harrington in the 2003 season. Harrington was sacked only eight times in 437 passing attempts, in part because he was unloading the ball early, before his receivers could develop their routes. He might have to live a little more dangerously this season to improve the offensive production. McMahon, for all of his athletic ability, is going into his third NFL season still trying to prove he can be an accurate passer. In two seasons he has completed only 43.9 percent of his passes but is averaging 5.9 yards on 41 running plays. Detmer is the ideal No. 3 quarterback -- experienced enough that he doesn't need reps in practice. Anes, an undrafted rookie, was extremely successful in Division II but -- if he makes the team -- it will probably be as a practice squad player headed for the NFL Europe next spring.
Starter -- James Stewart (RB), Cory Schlesinger (FB).
Backups -- Shawn Bryson, Artose Pinner, Avon Cobourne, Luke Staley, Rafael Cooper, Autry Denson, FB Stephen Trejo, FB Brandon Drumm, FB Reggie Holts.
If Mariucci can keep his running backs healthy, this will be the most improved part of the Lions offense. Stewart isn't a big-play threat but he is coming off a 1,021-yard rushing season and a reliable, consistent producer when he's healthy. Going into training camp, he still looks like the Lions best rushing weapon, although Bryson could get some carries if he is fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered last season at Buffalo. Pinner is a candidate for PUP as he continues a slow recovery from a broken leg suffered in the Senior Bowl and Cobourne has enough elusiveness to be an intriguing rookie. Luke Staley missed his rookie season with yet another knee surgery but he catches the ball better and has a better feel for the passing game than any other back on the team. The question is whether he can stay healthy. Schlesinger could benefit from the presence of RBs coach Tom Rathman but the backup FB job seems up for grabs. Trejo's special teams ability might give him an edge over rookies Drumm and Holts.
The Lions like the new look of Ricks, who added some weight in the form of muscle during the off-season. That doesn't make him a complete tight end but it should make him more effective in blocking assignments, although receiving is still his forte. Murphy had just one reception for eight yards last year as a rookie but he might have a greater upside than Owens, who is primarily a blocker. Fitzsimmons, an undrafted rookie from Carroll College, showed enough flash catching the ball in minicamps to get a ticket back to training camp.
There are two factors at play here -- the development of Rogers, the Lions' first-round draft pick, into an immediate impact player and the health of Schroeder and Hakim. The Lions have made it clear they will bring Rogers along at a pace with which he is comfortable, keeping in mind he played just two seasons at Michigan State but is blessed with enormous talent that will be valuable for another 10 years. But if he can produce -- say 40 or 50 catches as a rookie -- it will be an immense boost to the offense. Hakim remains a question mark going to camp. He seems to be progressing nicely from last year's season-ending hip dislocation but until he starts making football moves on the field in the heat of battle, the Lions won't know for sure if he will be back 100 percent. They'd like to keep him in the slot, where he has been most productive. Schroeder was hampered last year by bothersome injuries. He would probably be the most productive if he does not carry the weight of being the No. 1 receiver. If all three -- Rogers, Hakim and Schroeder -- are healthy and Kircus develops into the solid No. 4 WR they expect, Harrington will have a pretty good set of receivers.
Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Eric Beverly, C Dominic Raiola, RG Ray Brown, RT Stockar McDougle.
Backups -- G Tony Semple, T Matt Joyce, G Kerlin Blaise, G/C Tyrone Hopson, G Josh Lovelady, T Ben Johnson, T Victor Rogers.
Millen and Mariucci are expecting production and leadership from their three youngest linemen -- Backus, McDougle and Raiola -- but their best lineman might still be Brown, who turned 40 just before the end of the 2002 season. Despite his advanced age, Brown is a solid technician, an excellent leader and is reunited with his former 49ers coach Mariucci. If the Lions had two of him they wouldn't be undecided about the other guard job going into training camp. Beverly, a converted center, is the likely LG starter but Semple, a crusty nine-year veteran, is too tough to be counted out; he will at least be a high backup. Backus has started every game at LT in his two years with the Lions and has come along nicely -- not at a Pro Bowl level, but as a dependable player at the toughest line job in the NFL. Raiola is starting his third NFL season (his second as a starter) and is better than some initially expected he would be. A key performer is McDougle, who muddled through a couple of position changes and a series of injuries in an undistinguished first three seasons. He applied himself to an off-season course of losing weight and conditioning, however, and could be a huge boost if he plays the entire season with the same intensity. Johnson, a late-round draft pick, might compete for a backup job if he gets more aggressive but Joyce, Blaise and Hopson are the most likely ready reserves.
Starters -- LE Robert Porcher, DT Luther Elliss, DT Shaun Rogers, RE Kalimba Edwards.
Backups -- DE James Hall, DT Kelvin Pritchett, DE Jared DeVries, DE/T Antwan Lake, DE Jonathan Taylor, DE Cory Redding, DE Anthony Herron, DT John Turntine.
The defensive tackles were a major disappointment in 2002 and they present plenty of questions again in 2003. Elliss, who has been hampered by injuries in recent years, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in off-season workouts three weeks before the start of training camp and it appears he will miss all of camp and the exhibition season. The Lions cannot even be sure he'll be ready for the start of the regular season. Rogers was extremely impressive as a rookie in 2001 and just the opposite in 2002. His excuse for the dropoff was a broken and dislocated left thumb but he was overweight, out of shape and showed very little motivation. When Millen tried to trade him before the 2003 NFL draft, he was offered nothing more than a third-round pick. If he responds to off-season prodding from Millen and returns to his 2001 form, Rogers could be a high-impact player; otherwise, he could be in his last NFL season with the Lions. Porcher will be 34 when the season starts but is holding up well at DLE and Edwards, a strong finisher in his rookie season last year, has added a little bulk and muscle to be a more complete DRE. Pritchett, DeVries and Hall are solid role players and Redding, a third-round pick, could contribute also.
Starters -- OLB Barrett Green, MLB Earl Holmes, OLB Brian Williams.
Backups -- Jeff Gooch, Donte Curry, Boss Bailey, James Davis, Josh Thornhill, Ken Philpot, Richard Jordan, Chaz Murphy, Jody Littleton.
The linebacking corps will be the big test of Millen's progress as a personnel man. Last year's crew was thin and not very good, so he signed two free agents -- Earl Holmes and Wali Rainer -- and drafted two prospects -- Boss Bailey and James Davis -- after letting last year's MLB Chris Claiborne go to Minnesota as a free agent. New LBs coach Richard Smith will have to sort out the additions, but the Lions overall seem much stronger and deeper in the second line of defense. Green will return to play the weakside OLB position, where he can do what he does best -- run. The big question is the strongside OLB position. The Lions love Bailey's speed and athletic ability but until he gets stronger and improves as a tackler, he doesn't look like a full-time player. That job could go by default to Williams, a savvy veteran who has been hampered the past two years by injuries. Gooch is solid as a third-down backer and, like Curry, is a force on special teams.
Starters -- LCB Dre' Bly, RCB Chris Cash, SS Corey Harris, FS Brian Walker.
Backups -- CB Andre Goodman, S Lamar Campbell, CB Jimmy Wyrick, S Bracy Walker, CB Chris Watson, S Terrence Holt, S James Lewis, CB Blue Adams, CB Gerald Dixon, CB Jemeel Powell.
One very good thing has happened in the Lions defensive secondary in the past 12 months -- they have gotten significantly younger. Dre' Bly, signed as a free agent from St. Louis, is in only his fifth NFL season; Cash and Goodman, who will compete for the other starting CB job, are starting their second NFL season respectively. Gone are veterans Todd Lyght and Eric Davis, who had 25 years NFL experience between them but couldn't keep up with the young receivers they had to cover. Brian Walker is coming off a bothersome foot injury and makes a solid safety combination with Harris. Holt, a fifth-round draft pick, showed flashes in minicamp but might not get a lot of playing time behind backups Campbell, Wyrick, Bracy Walker and Watson, who was signed as a free agent.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson, P John Jett, PR Eddie Drummond, KOR Eddie Drummond, PC Brad Banta, KC Brad Banta.
The special teams are in good hands and well stocked, although the punt and kickoff return jobs still have to be firmed up by special teams coach Chuck Priefer. Hanson, at 33, might be losing a little distance in his leg but he is accurate and an extremely conscientious worker. Jett, 34, is one of the NFL's best at dropping punts inside the 20 and benefits greatly from Priefer's coverage teams. When he was healthy, Drummond was a very effective kick returner, averaging 26.0 although he didn't go the distance. He was less effective on punt returns, averaging just 7.7 yards on 18 attempts, but he had a 73-yard touchdown return at Arizona. Drummond will get the first shot at returns in 2003 but will have to stay healthy and prove he's good for the long run. If he is not, Priefer could look at Bly and rookie receivers Rogers and Kircus for help on returns. Banta makes the long snaps on both punts and field goals.
Head coach Steve Mariucci, offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer, special teams coach Chuck Priefer. Marty Mornhinweg had just five wins in two years and when Mariucci became available, Millen wasted no time making the coaching change. Oddly enough, Mornhinweg did a pretty good job of setting the table for his more experienced successor. It was essentially the Mariucci West Coast offense that Mornhinweg installed as the Lions offense two years ago and, because Mornhinweg had learned it working with Mike Holmgren and Mariucci, it is almost indentical to the system Mariucci runs. Lewis, a long-time West Coast practitioner, already was on the Lions staff as the coordinator, although Mariucci will continue to call the plays. Schottenheimer was retained as the defensive coordinator and will have more material with which to work in 2003. Priefer is one of the NFL's most highly-regarded special teams coaches, although he doesn't always get the recognition he deserves because the team as a whole has been so bad in recent years. Two Mariucci disciples -- running backs coach Tom Rathman and linebackers coach/assistant head coach Richard Smith -- are highly regarded and could make an impact also. Although Mariucci had significant success in six years at San Francisco, it is worth noting he probably had a stronger support system there. Nevertheless, the Lions are expecting good results out of him, whether it is this year or next.