STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Since president Matt Millen arrived three years ago, his goal has been to make the Lions younger and faster.
It didn't work in the first three years but in the past season, Millen seems to have laid a defensive foundation upon which he and coach Steve Mariucci can build.
The Lions have many needs -- especially on the offensive side -- but with a good draft and good choices in free agency, they might have a chance at playing near the .500 mark in 2004.
At the top of the list of needs are a running back, a receiver, a couple of guards and a tight end on the offensive side. They need a pass rusher, a safety and probably another cornerback to firm up the defense.
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Joey Harrington. Backups -- Mike McMahon, Ty Detmer.
Harrington had a hot start, a strong finish and struggled during the 14 games in between, as his 63.9 passer rating (third lowest among quarterbacks with 200 pass attempts or more) would indicate. In his second full season as a starter he made progress, however. His completion percentage went from 50.1 to 55.8, his touchdowns from 12 to 17 and, although he threw 22 interceptions, that wasn't entirely surprising considering he was frequently playing from behind without a running game to keep opposing defenses honest. When he held the ball an extra moment to let plays develop downfield, he was more effective than in the dink-and-dunk game. McMahon will probably be retained as a backup because Mariucci is still infatuated with his athletic ability, but his accuracy in two extended playing opportunities was a horrible 29 percent (21 of 87 attempts) and he showed no ability to make things happen within the offense. Detmer got no playing time but Mariucci and Millen like having him around.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- HB Artose Pinner, FB Cory Schlesinger. Backups --
Shawn Bryson, Olandis Gary, Paul Smith, Avon Cobourne, FB Stephen Trejo, James Stewart (IR).
For all practical purposes, the Lions lost their running game when James Stewart suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder in the final preseason game. Mariucci's running back-by-committee system left the Lions dead last in the NFL in rushing. Millen got little out of the trade for Gary (384 yards on 113 carries, 2 rushing TDs) and Cobourne was overmatched. Bryson would have been a nice change-of-pace back, capable of running occasionally from scrimmage and catching the ball out of the backfield, but he was not effective carrying the load through the first three months of the season. Pinner, a fourth-round draft pick coming off a broken leg, didn't play until the final month of the season and averaged only 2.5 yards per carry but he showed some encouraging signs. He isn't a speed burner or a big-play artist but he could develop into a solid No. 2 back behind Stewart or whoever the Lions acquire to fill that role.
TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starter -- Casey Fitzsimmons. Backups -- Mikhael Ricks,
Fitzsimmons moved into the starting job near mid-season and, although he isn't an all-purpose tight end, he is adequate for the Lions' purposes. He catches the ball well, works at the blocking assignments (although he doesn't have the size to be especially effective) and plays well on special teams. Ricks had too many drops early in the season but got increased playing time when the Lions ran out of WRs and responded well. Owens is used exclusively as a blocking TE.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim. Backups -- David Kircus, Reggie Swinton, Eddie Drummond, Charles Rogers (IR), Scotty Anderson (IR),
Shawn Jefferson (IR).
A total disaster in 2003. It started when Rogers, the Lions first-round draft pick, suffered a broken collarbone in a bye-week practice and eventually ended up on injured reserve. Anderson, who was having his best season (17 catches for 325 yards and two TDs in nine games) also landed on IR, as did veteran Shawn Jefferson. That left them with Bill Schroeder and Az-Zahir Hakim, who have never played up to the level of president Matt Millen's investment in them two years ago. Hakim finished as the leading WR with 49 catches but averaged only 9.2 yards but seemed to be regaining some of the quickness and elusiveness he lost temporarily coming back from a serious hip injury in 2002. Schroeder took more than his share of abuse from Lions fans, although he dropped very few balls in the final dozen games of the season. Used correctly -- as a deep receiver only -- he might have been more productive but he caught just 36 passes for 397 yards and two TDs.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Eric Beverly, C Dominic Raiola, RG Ray Brown, RT Stockar McDougle. Backups -- G/T Matt Joyce, G Kerlin Blaise, G Josh Lovelady.
The offensive line probably got a little more credit than it was due for giving up an NFL-low 11 quarterback sacks. The OTs -- Backus and McDougle -- played relatively well and Backus played courageously at the end of the season with a broken toe, among other things. But the big reason Harrington was sacked only eight times was that he got rid of the ball so quickly, sometimes before the play had time to develop downfield. On the other hand, the o-line probably took too much blame for the lack of a running game (32nd in the NFL). They are no better than average run blockers but the lack of RB talent was the big problem in that area. The Lions are still waiting for Raiola to play at a consistently high level; Brown, at 41, struggled frequently; and Beverly is probably better suited to a backup role than a starter.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Robert Porcher, DT Dan Wilkinson, DT Shaun Rogers, RE James Hall. Backups -- DE Kalimba Edwards, DE Jared DeVries, DT
Kelvin Pritchett, DT Cory Redding, DT Luther Elliss.
Signing Wilkinson before the start of the regular season turned out to be one of Millen's best moves. He fit well with Rogers, who was named a Pro Bowl alternate, and they played extremely well against the run as the season progressed. Hall is not a big-play artist but he is a plugger, steady and dependable, and probably had his best season. Porcher started showing his age in his 12th NFL season, recording only 4 1/2 sacks for the season, but probably has one more season left. The biggest disappointment was Edwards, who showed flashes of pass rush ability as a rookie in 2002 but was rushed back from a sports hernia and never played up to expectations. DeVries and Pritchett are solid in the d-line rotation but Elliss, when he finally came back from a torn pectoral muscle late in the season, hardly made a play.
LINEBACKER: Starters -- OLB Barrett Green, MLB Earl Holmes, OLB Boss Bailey.
Backups -- Wali Rainer, James Davis, Donte' Curry, Jeff Gooch.
Bailey turned out to be the most productive player in the 2003 rookie class. He was the fourth-leading tackler with 109 but, more importantly, showed the speed and athletic ability to run with opposing TEs and RBs, and made plays from sideline to sideline. Holmes is a solid MLB against the run and Green plays with great intensity, although he always gets beatup as the season progresses. Rainer did not compete for a starting job but was adequate in a backup role. Davis, a fifth-round draft pick, showed promise as an active player, usually around the ball.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Otis Smith, RCB Dre' Bly, SS Bracy Walker,
FS Brian Walker: Backups -- CB Doug Evans, CB Leonard Myers, S Terrence Holt, S
Julius Curry, CB Chris Cash (IR), CB Andre Goodman (IR), CB Rod Babers (IR), S
Corey Harris (IR).
There were times in midseason when Mariucci must have wondered if he'd have enough DBs to make it through the game. Injuries took a terrible toll on the Lions in an area they could not afford it. They lost starting CB Cash before the season and his replacement Goodman shortly thereafter, forcing a number of combinations in nickel and dime situations. Bly was the best player on the team -- offense or defense -- all season. He had six interceptions, broke up 13 passes, forced five fumbles and scored two touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl start in the process. The next-best development was Holt, a fifth-round pick, who filled in nicely at CB but finished the season at FS, where he will get a chance to start in 2004. Smith played well but his age (38) is working against him and the Lions didn't get nearly enough plays from Harris and Walker, the safeties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson; P Nick Harris; LS Jody Littleton; H Nick
Harris; KOR Eddie Drummond; PR Eddie Drummond. Backups -- P John Jett (IR); LS
Bradford Banta (IR); PR/KOR Reggie Swinton.
If Hanson played for a contender or had gotten enough opportunities, he would have had a shot at making the Pro Bowl. That's how well he kicked. He was 22-for-23 on field goal attempts, including 4-for-4 from 50 yards or more. And his kickoffs were still consistently deep at the age of 33. Harris was inconsistent after being signed to fill in for Jett (torn calf muscle) and Drummond was productive, but had a problem staying healthy. Swinton showed some flashes, including an 89-yard PR touchdown, but is undisciplined and erratic.