Offseason Overview; Long Season Ahead

With a few moves in the right areas, the Detroit Lions could have put themselves in a situation to post a seven or eight win season. Instead, Detroit will be hard-pressed to get more than five wins in the 2002 campaign

While the Lions pick of University of Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington grabbed all the headlines, it's doubtful the move will net any short-term dividends.

Instead, with their secondary in a shambles and their offensive line among the worst in football, the Detroit Lions will need to make some shrewd moves between now and the start of the season to avoid another 10+ loss season.

Quarterback: It's not a question of if, it's a question of when Joey Harrington will unseat Mike McMahon at the starting quarterback position.

The pick will yield longterm dividends though as Harrington has the talent and the confidence to be a very good, if not great NFL quarterback.

The puzzling move was the dumping of Charlie Batch so soon. Batch, just 27, and only in his fifth NFL season, would have made a nice fit to hold the seat warm until Harrington was ready to play.

Instead, Detroit dumped Batch and will take nearly $9 in cap charges next offseason. It would have only cost them about $2 million to keep him on the roster. Ty Detmer is simply hanging on.

Running back: James Stewart is the only player Detroit has on the roster who is proven at the position. Despite that, hopes are high for 7th round pick, oft injured running back Luke Staley of BYU.

Also raising eyes in the team's minicamp and organized team activity was undrafted free agent James Mungro of Syracuse. Still, if Stewart is hurt again like he was last year, their hopes of having a decent running game go up in smoke.

Wide Receiver: Az-Zahir Hakim was Detroit's star off-season acquisition. The move has been roundly criticized because many felt Detroit paid too much for Hakim and the fact that he sometimes has trouble holding on to the football.

Still, Detroit needed playmakers and there is no question that Hakim can be one. Sure, he does fumble, but he has speed to burn and can take it all the way on any play. Despite that, the key here is the health of Germane Crowell.

Crowell can be a #1 receiver if he is healthy. His injury-proned nature has put him behind the eight ball in terms of learning the west coast offense, but Detroit's front office and coaching staff see another Terrell Owens type player in Crowell.

If he can return to the form he showed his first two seasons and if Bill Schroeder can be a consistent #3, the Lions could put some points on the board.

Offensive Line: It all hinges on what happens here. Jeff Backus will only get better after a solid rookie season at the critical left tackle position. Tony Semple ought to hold down the left guard spot at least adequately but after that, it all is very iffy.

At center, Eric Beverly is a decent, undersized, but quick pivotman. The problems occur in the run game when linebackers are able to overpower Beverly.

Brenden Stai is the weak link in the front five even though he was sold to the fans as an adequate replacement for a pro-bowl caliber guard/center like Jeff Hartings. Detroit even awarded Stai its "Erik Andolsek award" as it's best lineman. But the journeyman has been cut twice in his eight year career.

If Stai continues to struggle, Stockar McDougle, who is currently listed as a guard on Detroit's depth chart, could stay there. Detroit's brass is getting fed up with McDougle lack of conditioning and oft-injured status. The former Oklahoma star could find himself going the way of fellow #1 pick Aaron Gibson, released and out of a job. For a few more bucks, Hartings could still be on the roster. Was it worth the 'savings'?

Detroit will keep a keen eye on the waiver wire during training camp to see if something shakes loose. If not, tackle Matt Joyce, McDougle and Stai will fight it out for two starting positions.

Tight End: Clearly Detroit has gotten worse at this position. David Sloan, a two-time pro bowler is now in New Orleans. Replacing him is Mikhael Ricks, a converted wide receiver. This arguably was the worst offseason move Detroit made.

They flirted with Indianapolis Colts tight end Ken Dilger and led fans to believe that a signing was imminent. "He's not here just to talk," Lions president Matt Millen said. "Dilger's as close to a complete package at tight end as you're going to get. You won't find one who can block and catch like he does. He's not as fast as David [Sloan] overall."

Instead, Millen wouldn't meet the salary needs of Dilger and he ended up signing with Tampa Bay. With Sloan in New Orleans and Pete Mitchell, Detroit's former #2 tight end back in Jacksonville, the Lions were forced to take Ricks. He has the speed and hands, but Detroit needs help blocking, not Ricks forte'. Again, for a few more bucks, Sloan or even Dilger could be catching pass in a Lions uniform and helping out the blocking unit.

Defensive Line: Here is the most talented area the club has. With Shaun Rogers now the leader of this unit and Robert Porcher still one of the most effective quarterback sack men in the game, Detroit is in good shape.

It needs a better season from Luther Elliss, who was terrible last year in an injury plagued season. If Elliss plays the way he can, Detroit only needs a decent contribution from rookie #2 pick Kalimba Edwards who ought to grab the left defensive end position.

Jared DeVries, Travis Kirschke and James Hall give Detroit solid backups and DeVries will try to keep the end spot away from Edwards.

Linebackers: A lot of talent is here, but Detroit got worse at the key strong side linebacker spot. Allen Aldridge is not the second coming of Ray Nitschke, but he did ably man the position.

Now, Detroit will have to find a starter from a group including Clint Kriewaldt, Jeff Gooch (acquired from Tampa Bay), Brian Williams and undrafted rookie free agent Josh Thornhill.
Don't be surprised if Thornhill finds his way in the playing group. Linebackers coach Glenn Pires was high on the rookie who played well in the OTA.

Still, Detroit has two extremely talented players in Chris Claiborne, who ought to really blossom into a pro-bowl type player this season and Barrett Green who's tremendous speed gets him to a lot of plays. Now he just needs to finish them.

Secondary: Detroit did one thing right here, they fixed the safety problem. With Brian Walker, a free agent acquisition from Miami in the fold, Detroit picked up solid tackling and some speed.

They also signed long time veteran Corey Harris from the Baltimore Ravens and street free agent Bracy Walker. Add Lamar Campbell to this group and Detroit's safeties have the potential to be the best group they've fielded since they lined up Bennie Blades and William White together in 1990. The corners, though are a mess.

Inexplicably, Detroit allowed a healing Bryant Westbrook to walk (Westbrook may start in Dallas) and Terry Fair has been slow healing from a broken foot. Detroit was forced to sign longtime veteran Eric Davis to go with another longtime veteran, Todd Lyght. 3rd and 5th round draft picks Andre Goodman and Chris Cash likely will be the nickle and dime backs. For basically what they paid for Davis, Westbrook would look very good here. Be honest, who would you rather have lining up, Westbrook or Davis?

Special Teams: Jason Hanson had an off-year and if he has another one, you have to begin considering acquiring someone. Hanson is in his 11th season, how long can he go on?

John Jett with 10 years in the league is basically in the same situation except he has always been basically a middle-of-the-road talent.

No one wants to spend a draft pick on these position, but Detroit did it right with Hanson. If he can go two or three more years, it's all gravy.

Coaching: The jury is out on Marty Mornhinweg. If he puts up a 12+ loss season, it's not inconceivable that he could be out.

Remember when Millen was first rumored to be coming to the Lions, San Francisco 49'ers head coach Steve Mariucci was supposed to be coming with him. Millen didn't get it that time around and when he did, he brought Mooch's offensive coordinator.

If Millen has to change coaches, he isn't going to give another rookie a choice, he'll go with a proven winner, and Mariucci will be available after the season.

Meanwhile, the Ford's have never shown a quick trigger, but Ford, Sr. can't wait forever for a winner another 12+ loss season could put everyone in jeopardy.

Overall, if only Detroit had addressed the corner and the offensive line. They could have made the jump from a 14 loss season to maybe 7-9. Now, Detroit is looking at slight improvement, maybe four or five wins.

Anything else is being overly optimistic. This isn't what the Ford's had in mind to open their new downtown stadium, but unless Harrington can be the second coming of Joe Montana, that is what they're going to get.


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