Greater expectations facing 2004 Lions team

It would be difficult to challenge the apparent progress Lions' GM Matt Millen has made this off-season. Keyword being 'apparent,' however. Now comes the hard part, turning that talent into production... and wins on the football field. Lions' insider Mike Fowler reviews the off-season moves, and whether or not they can translate into wins on the football field.

(ALLEN PARK) - By all accounts, President Matt Millen had his second consecutive great off-season in acquiring talent for the Detroit Lions organization. Detroit had a superb draft, acquiring three impact players in the first 30 picks of the draft; wide receiver Roy Williams, running back Kevin Jones and linebacker Teddy Lehmann.

The free agency signing period was just as productive.

Detroit acquired the top free agent lineman, Damien Woody out of New England, landed a top talent in cornerback Fernando Bryant from Jacksonville and then added a solid piece to the receiving corps in Tai Streets from San Francisco. Safety Brock Marion signed away from the Miami Dolphins and should solidify the safety position and Detroit also signed veteran guard David Loverne from St. Louis for depth along the offensive line.

Coming back are a nucleus of solid players in quarterback Joey Harrington, running back Artose Pinner, corner Dre' Bly, wide receiver Charles Rogers, defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson and linebacker Boss Bailey.

In short, the Lions have assembled quite a group of talented players.

Now comes the hard part, turning that talent into production... and wins on the football field.

It's been five seasons since Detroit last posted a winning record. That was 2000 under the Bobby Ross/Gary Moeller regime who posted a 9-7 record, kicked out of the playoffs by a 53-yard field goal from Chicago and former Michigan State kicker Paul Edinger before Moeller was dismissed.

However, Millen's first two years atop the Lions franchise were dismal.

Marty Mornhinweg, Millen's pick to be his first head coach, won two and then three games before being dismissed in 2002. The following season, Millen got his top candidate, former San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci who added a touch of professionalism, class and respectability to the organization. Mariucci equaled Mornhinweg's two-year total, in his first season, posting a 5-11 record in Motown.

This year, the stakes are clearly higher for Mariucci, Millen and the Lions.

Quarterback Joey Harrington, heading into his third season as Detroit's staring quarterback, is expected to improve upon his dismal 63.9 passer rating (only Chicago's Kordell Stewart faired worse) which ranked him 15th out of 16 NFC starting quarterbacks.

Harrington says he feels no special pressure, but wants to see improvement in his game. "I think every year is important," he said. "I don't think this year is any more important than any other. I put the same pressure on myself this year that I did when I came in as a rookie. It's no different in my mind."

Despite Harrington's confidence, the team is likely going only as far as Harrington can take them. However, he likely will be able to rely on his defense to set the tone early. Detroit's defensive line remains one of the strengths of this team with Shaun Rogers anchoring the unit, along with Dan Wilkinson.

Lions head coach Steve Mariucci believes Rogers is ready to become one of the elite defensive linemen, along the lines of the Warren Saap's and Kris Jenkins' of the NFL.

"I'm looking forward to him taking the next step and getting to the next level in terms of being a premiere defensive lineman. He's not there yet, he's headed there. He's a young guy, we love having him here on this team."

"He should have many more good football years in front of him. He's a guy that we want to extend his contract. We are in the preliminary stages with all those sort of those things. Shaun is a guy who is just coming into his own right now. He hasn't peaked yet; he hasn't filled all of his potential yet. He and a handful of other guys are going to be our premiere players."

Defensive ends Kalimba Edwards and James Hall will round out the starting unit with veteran Robert Porcher in reserve as a pass rushing specialist and, occasionally, a backup defensive tackle.

Mariucci thinks defensive line coach Larry Brooks' methods will make a difference in the team's production.

"He brings a lot of experience; one by playing the game for a long time and two by coaching the game for a long time. He has coached rookies, he's coached draft choices, he's coached Reggie White, he's coached them all. He's been around the block a couple of different times. I think he brings some real credibility to the coaching position over there at defensive line. Players are responding to him. They know he speaks from experience and he is very well prepared. He is very detailed."

Pro Bowler Dre' Bly is clearly the leader in the locker room and now has a veteran presence in signee Fernando Bryant on the opposite side. Solid veteran Brock Marion will add a calming presence in the safety unit - if he can stay free of fraud charges that are pending. Either Brian Walker or sophomore Terrence Holt, who showed real promise late in 2003, will man the free safety position.

The linebacker position got an infusion of talent from third year man James (Dirty) Davis and second year standout Boss Bailey. Bailey showed the rap he had as a poor tackler was nonsense. His 88 tackles from the strong side ranked third on the team. Detroit returns holdover MLB Earl Holmes (97 tackles and 2.0 sacks) who will split time with rookie Teddy Lehmann, Detroit's second round pick (30th overall) who is the heir to the starting position.

Putting things together on the defensive side of the football is coordinator Dick Jauron who had a 13 win season as coach of the Chicago Bears before being let go after a sub par season last year. Detroit thinks they have a real winner in Jauron.

"The reason he's here is not because we're friends," affirmed coach Mariucci, "that's a plus, not a reason. The reason he's here is because he is an excellent football coach and he's going to teach this defense, technique, detail, discipline, the whole thing. Our defense had a challenge last year missing so many players and having to adjust and I thought we did a pretty good job in trying to accommodate the new players that we had and we did a pretty darn good job with it. We're starting over with Dick and I was in one of his meetings already, and he's just excellent."

Detroit also is clearly expecting an improvement in the running game after drafting Virginia product Kevin Jones with the 30th pick in the first round. Jones comes to the Lions with impressive credentials rushing for 3,475 yards (5.6 avg.) and 35 touchdowns in his Virginia career. Detroit also returns last year's fourth-round pick Artose Pinner who led the SEC in rushing with 1,414 yards in 2002 at Kentucky. Lions head coach Steve Mariucci is clearly expecting more than he got out of Olandis Gary and Shawn Bryson and says alternating backs is a distinct possibility this season.

"I don't know that we'll have a featured tailback, so to speak," said Mariucci. "I've said it a million times, we may alternate backs, we may have a lead back and role player and a third-down backer, whatever that is. Right now it is a better group than what we've had."

Detroit's receiving corps may be among the strongest units on the team with rookie Roy Williams, Detroit's top draft pick in 2004 joining last year's No. 1 pick (2nd overall) Charles Rogers, holdover Az-Zahir Hakim, the team's prime free agent signing two seasons ago and this year's free agent acquisition Streets gives the ball club depth and experience.

So what can we make of the Lions chances in 2004?

Detroit should improve in a dismal NFC North. Green Bay should take a step back from its 10-6 record a season ago and Minnesota appears to be idling at around 8-8. It is not inconceivable that Detroit could be 9-7 and at worst 7-9, two games better than a season ago. If Harrington takes the same quantum leap that some third year quarterbacks have (see Chad Pennington of New York), Detroit could sniff their first playoff appearance in years.

The Lions appear to be at least one year away from being legitimate playoff contenders, but after three straight sub .500 seasons, 8-8 or 9-7 wouldn't leave a bad taste in the mouth of Lions fans.

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