Tale of Tape: Lions offense stacks up better

Although the Lions recent mini-camp and organized team activity revealed the ball club is deeper and stronger at virtually every position group offensively, success will depend upon the quarterback position. Lions' insider Mike Fowler breaks down each individual offensive position group and respective changes entering 2004.

The Lions recent mini-camp and organized team activity revealed Detroit is deeper and stronger at virtually every position group. The following is a ranking of team roster groups.

6. Tight ends: While Detroit improved themselves with the signing of Stephen Alexander, he has some of the same weaknesses that doomed the tenure of now departed Mikhael Ricks. Neither has been able to stay on the field and both have had trouble fighting the injury bug. Second year man Casey FitzSimmons will now be relegated to the backup position. Brad Banta is listed as a tight end but is basically a long snapper and nothing more. Detroit needs an impact guy at the position. Next year's draft could bring one in.

5. Quarterback: Joey Harrington ranked next to last in passing efficiency among NFC starters (only Chicago's Kordell Stewart was worse). While much has been made of Harrington entering his third season and the expected improvement, he still has to show it on the field. Mike McMahon has been unable to get on the field as Detroit has tried to develop Harrington, perhaps making this McMahon's final season with the team. The Lions lost Ty Detmer to Atlanta in free agency and signed journeyman Rick Mirer to play the veteran mentor role. The team is going nowhere until they can get better play out of this unit.

4. Fullbacks: The acquisition of Paul Smith really put a charge into this group. Veteran and Pro Bowler Cory Schlesinger is basically a hard charging lead blocker, but seemed to struggle in the new role as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith took to the role like a fish into water. It was something he relished after playing the same role for the San Francisco 49ers. Smith figures to be on the field with the passing group more than Schlesinger. Both have their strengths and should complement each other effectively.

3. Offensive line: This group had a real bump up with the acquisition of Pro Bowler Damien Woody, who will start at guard, but improvement is needed from third year players Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and fourth year pro Stockar McDougle. At times, McDougle looks like he could be a Pro Bowl-type player, yet at other times, he's spotty. While he definitely benefitted from playing next to Ray Brown last season, he still has to take the next step. Ditto for Jeff Backus. Of all the holdovers, center Dominic Raiola's play has been the most disappointing. Billed as an athletic center, Raiola seems to get caught up in the mix on pulling plays and seems to have developed an aggravating habit of diving at opposing linemen. He was flagged twice for chop blocks last season, something that could stick in referee's heads as they review tapes in preparation for 2005. He needs to establish himself this season because Woody has the capability of moving back to his collegiate position. Versatile Matt Joyce or newcomer David Loverne could start at the other guard position.

2: Running backs: The addition of Kevin Jones immediately raises the level of play of this group. Jones is a bona-fide star in the making. He could be a 1,000 yard rusher his rookie season. Meanwhile, 2003 fourth round pick Artose Pinner, the SEC leading rusher his senior season at Kentucky, looks better than ever and could also have an impact on the team. Shawn Bryson will provide veteran leadership. Olandis Gary appears likely to be the odd-man out.

1. Wide receiver: The addition of play making wide out Roy Williams to acrobatic Charles Rogers makes this group the top unit on the Detroit offense. Adding to the excitement is solid chain moving Tai Streets and Az-Zahir Hakim will be deadly moving back to the slot. In addition, the improving Scotty Anderson showed the potential to make big plays when pressed into service late in 2003. Penn State star Eddie Drummond can catch a ball or two if needed but is primarily a return man. The group also improved by subtraction when it released clubhouse whiner Bill Schroeder.

This unit should score points, move chains and win a few more games, but it all depends upon the improvement of Harrington or McMahon. Detroit could be on the verge of a playoff spot if Harrington's play improves as much as Detroit believes it will. If not, they likely will finish somewhere around 7-9. If that happens, look for Detroit to do make more offseason changes to ensure that in 2005, the year Ford Field hosts the Super Bowl, that they will be a real contender and not a playoff bystander.

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