(ALLEN PARK) - All of the Lions rookie draft choices are in for the start of
a four-day orientation session and Detroit's full squad will report on Saturday,
July 30th for the start of two-a-day sessions.
Detroit has not had a holdout under the watch of C.O.O. Tom Lewand since 1997 and does not expect to have one this year, despite having two first round draft picks, wide receiver Roy Williams (7th overall) and running back Kevin Jones (30th overall).
That is a good thing because the presence of veterans Tai Streets and Shawn Bryson notwithstanding, Williams and Jones along with second round draft pick
Teddy Lehman will move into starting positions almost immediately for Detroit,
beginning the transition to the core of players forming a nucleus that will last well into the end of the decade.
Lions' president Matt Millen, who started off extremely shaky in 1999, has settled quite nicely into a niche as a collegiate talent evaluator and draft guru. He wisely turned financial matters to Lewand and pro personnel evaluation to talented Sheldon White in conjunction with the solid football mind of head coach Steve Mariucci, while allowing director of public relations Bill Keenist function as a de facto chief of staff.
The result has been two banner years for Detroit in acquiring talent and building what Mariucci says is "something good" for Detroit.
Still, Detroit appears to be a year away from being a true playoff contender. The inevitable growing pains associated with rookies and second year players and the maturation process of quarterback Joey Harrington all figure to conspire to keep the Lions inches away from a wild card berth in 2004-05.
Nevertheless, it will be great for Lions fans to watch as their team finally is competitive on a week-in, week-out basis and to observe the Lions taking baby steps on their way to challenging for the division title in 2005-06.
Some things to watch for training camp starts:
SIGNINGS - Look for Lewand to start getting players inked to contracts early
this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow. A likely target is third round pick
Keith Smith, a corner from McNeese State or second round pick Teddy Lehman. Once
the bar is set in the middle, the rest of the players know where they fit.
Although NFL execs deny it, slotting is still part of the process in getting
players signed. Once the ball gets rolling, players sign quickly. Don't be
surprised if Jones and/or Williams to take right up to Saturday to get done.
ROOKIES MOVE TO HEAD OF THE CLASS - Look for three rookies, Williams, Jones and Lehman to start almost from day one. Williams showed big time play making ability at Texas and is a more physical specimen than is second year player Rogers. While Rogers has shown the ability to make the acrobatic, circus-type catch. Williams is a big strong durable target with sprinters speed. There will be no jamming of Williams off the line of scrimmage; he has the ability to punish opposing corners will beating them deep, even if they back off.
Jones isn't going to make anyone forget about Hall of Fame great Barry Sanders, but he might make you forget Billy Sims. Jones has speed to and around the edge and is physical enough to pound it inside. Coming out of school a year early gives him a year more of NFL ball. Barring injury, he'll be Detroit's feature back for the next ten years.
Lehman showed in mini-camp enough speed to play the outside, but a nose for the football inside. Donning No. 54 will make him a fan favorite immediately while his ability to make stops will likely place him ahead of aging Earl Holmes. Lehman may not play every down, but he's likely to be the one on the field when the defense really needs a stop.
Smith is likely to contend with holdovers Andre Goodman, Rod Babers and Chris Cash for the nickel back job. Smith, 5' 11", 201 is a big corner and has good cover skills with the ability to run with receivers. He is not a threat to start unless injury strikes. Is likely to end up as the dime back.
Detroit's 5th round pick, Alex Lewis, could get into the playing group but is more likely to see action on special teams adding even more youth to a group that is rapidly getting younger and faster. He excels in running from sideline to sideline and Chuck Priefer will love having his production on his units initially until he can grow into the regular playing group.
While Detroit is considering signing veteran Solomon Page to play in the interior line, don't dismiss the chances of talented Kelly Butler, a Grand Rapids native who played at Purdue. Butler got some what of a bad rap for being a malcontent but in the pros, it's about production. Butler will likely start out on special teams as well, but has the talent to be an everyday player at tackle - he's a bit too big (6' 7 1/2", 310-lbs) to be a guard. If Detroit decides that either of their tackles haven't panned out, Butler could eventually work his way into the group.
BATTLES: A battle could loom at tight end where second year undrafted free agent Casey FitzSimmons will try to hang onto his starting job as newly signed Stephen Alexander wants to take it away. Alexander is talented and can play at a pro bowl level when healthy. The dreaded "sports hernia" ruined two seasons - an eternity for NFL execs - and now Alexander could be facing his last chance to be a factor in the NFL.
The offensive guard position opposite Damien Woody will be a spot where someone can find a starting position. Matt Joyce, Dave Loverne, Josh Lovelady, and perhaps Butler will all get a shot with the best man winning. If Solomon Page shows up, he could be handed the job outright. This is the best battle ground of training camp.
Will Detroit play it safe and go with NFL veteran Nick Harris, who delivered one a sub par performance (25th out of 32 in the NFL) in relief of veteran John Jett or give big-legged rookie Curt Ansel of Kansas a real shot at unseating Harris. The loss of Jett to a career ending injury hurts the Lions more than it might appear. Going with Ansel could give Detroit a player who could grow into a star; Harris would give them steadiness at a key position.
At the bottom of Detroit's food chain at wide receiver is David Kircus and Scotty Anderson, two players that will likely fight it out for the last spot at the position. With Rogers, Williams, Hakim and Streets virtual locks and Eddie Drummond or Reggie Swinton taking the 5th spot as a returner, that leaves Kircus fighting for his life against Anderson. Anderson showed play making ability when given a chance late in the season. Mariucci hesitated to even put Kircus on the roster until there was no other choice making him likely the odd man out.
Speaking of Swinton and Drummond, one isn't going to make the squad as it is unlikely Mariucci will keep two primarily return men. Swinton ranked 7th (1,029 return yards) in the NFL in return average to Drummond's 19th (429 return yards). Drummond, though, prior to his injury showed a penchant for the big play. In 2003 he averaged 26.0 third in the NFL for kickoff return average and posted the fifth-best single-season kickoff return average in franchise history.
Camp starts Saturday, July 31 with all practices closed to the public with the exception of the "Black and Blue" open practice to be held at Ford Field Aug, 8th.
Detroit starts the preseason Aug 14th hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field at 7:30 pm.