ALLEN PARK - Heading towards the start of July's training camp, the Detroit Lions have done a nice job of acquiring talent through both free agency and the draft. Will those acquisitions translate into more "W's" this season? Much depends on whether the players Detroit has added to their roster turn out to be playmakers or simply role players.
Detroit has, in the past, had solid role players throughout the roster but very few difference makers, players who make key plays that turn the outcome in the team's favor.
Scout.com takes a look at the offensive side of the Detroit roster and identifies which players have the potential and ability to be a true difference makers for the team this season.
OFFENSIVE LINE - Players to watch: LT Jeff Backus, C Dominic Raiola.
Former #1 pick Backus has been steady at left tackle but this season has an opportunity to take the next step to elite status. Backus team's with newcomer Rick DeMulling (Indianapolis) to make Detroit's left side solid.
Raiola showed improvement over the course of 2004, can he continue that rise and become a dominant pivotman? Clearly that is what the Lions were hoping when they re-signed the former second round pick from Nebraska. There are question marks at the right tackle spot where unproven Kelly Butler will fight it out with off-season acquisition Kyle Kosier (San Francisco).
"Kyle Kosier has been a starter at the left tackle spot or guard or right tackle. Kelly Butler [has gotten] a lot of snaps at the right tackle spot. We're going to be moving guys around. Kelly redshirted last year so he needs all of the snaps that he can get and he's going to get a lot," said Mariucci.
Newly signed C/G Brock Gutierrez, a longtime starter for the San Francisco 49ers will vie for a backup role. "He is a good guy and we will give him a shot," Mariucci said of Gutierrez. "We have got (Tyrone) Hopson, who has not been practicing and we can use another center in this camp and in training camp as well."
The focus, though, is on two fifth-year Lions who have a chance to evolve into dominant players.
RUNNING BACK - Player to watch: Kevin Jones
Jones emerged late in his rookie season as a Pro Bowl alternate level performer but can he make the leap to a premier back in the NFL? Jones shows speed and elusiveness and worked very hard on catching the ball this offseason. Expect Jones to make the jump to become one of the top backs in the NFL this season.
WIDE RECEIVER - Players to watch: Charles Rogers and Roy Williams
The fact that Detroit's receiving corps is loaded is well documented, but it's time for the playmakers to emerge. While fans can expect newly acquired Kevin Johnson and first round pick Mike Williams to be solid, it's Rogers and Williams who bear watching. Both possess game-breaking speed and sticky hands, but it's Rogers who has the acrobatic ability and elusiveness to be a 'Lynn Swann-type' receiver.
On the other hand, Williams' physical nature, in addition to his other gifts, stamps him as a player to watch. "I really don't know any other team that has three big, fast guys, that can get it done," said Williams, who quickly added, "we don't know if we can do it yet either. That's why we've just got to go out here and work everyday and try to get to that point and try to get us where we want to be."
Both players need to stay healthy and start making the special plays they are capable of making. If they do, this could be a magical year in Motown. Here's betting this season will be Rogers' year.
QUARTERBACK - Player to watch: Joey Harrington
It's like beating a dead horse and playing a broken record simultaneously; yes, Joey Harrington is the player EVERYONE is watching. Heading into his fourth season, Harrington will count nearly $8 million against the cap and everyone is waiting for the former Oregon standout to show the playmaking ability he showed at the collegiate level. Harrington needs to be able to make big plays and get the offense into the end zone. Yes, it bears repeating, Harrington needs to come up big for Detroit in 2005. If not, veteran three-time Pro Bowl selection Jeff Garcia will likely get his shot at the starting quarterback position.
While these six have the most potential to be difference makers sometimes it is the unsung, unheralded player who rises up to put together a magical season that propels his team into playoff contention.
There is no question that, on paper, this team has playoff-caliber talent, but games aren't won on paper. Detroit needs potential to become reality sooner rather than later. If even a few of these players make the jump from ''player to difference maker'', Lions fans will finally get that long awaited playoff berth.
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