NFC North News: Lions Draft

The Lions had a good draft and feel like there is only one position of immediate and top concern. However, the team may still be another round of free agency and drafting away from contending for the division.

If the Lions can come up with a quality right guard, they might yet have a chance to deliver on coach Steve Mariucci's expectations to compete in the NFC North in 2004.

Combined with their free-agent acquisitions, the Lions have done a surprisingly good job of filling holes at receiver, running back, on the offensive line and at linebacker.

There are still questions, of course, as you would expect of a team coming off consecutive seasons of 2-14, 3-13 and 5-11.

They need a right guard, unless they believe journeyman Matt Joyce can handle the job.

It has yet to be determined if last year's fifth-round pick, James Davis, or this year's second-round pick Teddy Lehman can handle the weakside linebacker job.

And it remains to be seen if Casey FitzSimmons and Mikhael Ricks can give them more tight end production this year than they did in 2003.

Conventional wisdom is that the Lions need one more good season in free agency and the draft to actually compete for a division title or a wildcard playoff berth, but it appears they have made considerable progress in laying a foundation.

Lions president Matt Millen, who has taken his share of criticism and more in his first three years on the job, has received positive reviews for the Lions draft. And deservedly so.

The Lions went into the draft in need of speed and Millen maximized his six picks to deliver coach Steve Mariucci the speed and offensive playmakers the Lions have lacked in recent seasons.

Millen made two trades and ended up with the two players he wanted - wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Kevin Jones - in the first round of the draft.

In those two players, the Lions got the offensive weapons they needed to give third-year quarterback Joey Harrington a chance to elevate the Lions from 32nd in offensive production.

It's too early to proclaim the Lions contenders but, assuming Williams and Jones are healthy and come close to supporting the team's expectations, the Lions will have a running game to keep opposing defenses honest and a pair of young receivers - Williams and last year's first-round pick Charles Rogers - to spread the field for the running games.

The Lions stuck to their speed theme in their four remaining picks of the draft and at least one of them - linebacker Teddy Lehman - should join Williams and Jones in providing immediate help to the Lions.

Lehman is expected to compete with second-round linebacker James Davis for the weakside linebacker opening left when Barrett Green was signed by the New York Giants. He will also get a chance to play on special teams.

Cornerback Keith Smith of McNeese State (third round) has size and speed but will have to make an adjustment from Division I-AA; linebacker Alex Lewis (fifth round) has speed to run with backs and tight ends but isn't considered a big hitter; and tackle Kelly Butler (sixth round) is a 6-foot-7, 320-pound mauler projected by some draft analysts as a mid-round pick.

BEST PICK: WR Roy Williams of Texas in the first round. Not only did the Lions get the much-needed big-play receiver, by dropping one slot in the first round - from sixth to seventh overall - Lions president Matt Millen landed an additional second-round pick that enabled him to move back into the first round for RB Kevin Jones.

COULD SURPRISE: CB Keith Smith of McNeese State in the third round. He has a lot of characteristics - size, speed and athletic ability - required of a shutdown corner. If he can make the adjustment from Division I-AA to the NFL and learn to play a more physical style, he could be a steal in the third round.

A closer look at the Lions' picks:

Round 1/7 — Roy Williams, WR, 6-2 1/2, 212, Texas

The Lions need a playmaker to help them to improve the 32d-ranked offense in the league and they feel they got it in Williams. He will line up with last year's No. 2 pick, Charles Rogers, and give the Lions twin deep threats for QB Joey Harrington. Excellent speed, good burst eats up defender's cushion, plucks the ball and makes the tough catch.

Round 1/30 — Kevin Jones, RB, 5-11 7/8, 227, Virginia Tech

The top-rated RB on the Lions board and they felt strongly enough about him to give up a second and fourth-round pick this year, as well as a fifth-round pick next year to get him. Has a nice combination of speed and athletic ability, cuts and accelerates well, plays faster than he times. Hasn't caught many passes out of the backfield, which might limit his playing time initially in the West Coast offense.

Round 2/37 — Teddy Lehman, OLB, 6-1 5/8, 238, Oklahoma

Alert, savvy linebacker, who won the Butkus Award for outstanding linebacker and Bednarik Award as outstanding defensive player as a senior at Oklahoma. Has the speed to run with most backs and tight ends, so figures to get a shot at the Lions' open weak-side linebacker job but can play inside as well. Expected to make immediate contribution on special teams.

Round 3/73 — Keith Smith, CB, 5-11 1/4, 200, McNeese State

Good size, good closing speed and has good ball skills. Comes out of his backpedal nicely. Very aware. Despite his size, is not as physical as some coaches would like and isn't a great force against the run. Was a shutdown corner at the Division I-AA level but will have to make the adjustment to tougher competition than he has faced.

Round 5/140 — Alex Lewis, LB, 5-11 3/4, 227, Wisconsin

A jack-of-all-trades linebacker, started inside and outside, and finished third on the team in tackles. An All-Big Ten first teamer as well as Academic All-Big Ten. Very good speed and flies to the ball, hard worker and over-achiever. Fills holes well and scouts say he would thrive on a team that thrives on speedy linebackers. Likely to be a good special teams contributor.

Round 6/172 — Kelly Butler, OT, 6-7 3/8, 320, Purdue

Has the size and temperament for the tackle position. A mauler with long arms, good initial quickness. Limited pass blocking skills, however, which might account for him slipping to the sixth round. Probably should have stayed at Purdue for his final season of eligibility.

  • The Lions have two young, fast receivers in this year's first-round pick Roy Williams and last year's first-round pick Charles Rogers, but the question now is how coach Steve Mariucci will use them.

    Who will play the split end position and who will play the flanker? As far as Mariucci is concerned, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference.

    "We haven't sorted through that yet," Mariucci said. "We're going to see how Charles feels and how he's doing with his health and his progress, and how quickly he can participate in these minicamps.

    "They both have similar qualities. One is not better suited for the z-position than the other necessarily. I don't know that it matters much at this point. We'll let that sort out.

    "The same with Tai Streets. He has played x and z in this system. So we have got three guys that have the size and that sort of thing. Then you add Az (Hakim) and David Kircus and the rest of them, we feel that we have a pretty darn good receiver corps right now."

  • Even before he landed running back Kevin Jones at the end of the first round, coach Steve Mariucci felt the Lions had improved their running game.

    And how did they manage that?

    By drafting wide receiver Roy Williams, of course. By lining Williams and Charles Rogers up as the wide receivers, teams will have to respect the Lions' passing game and that will give the running backs more room to operate.

    "By getting a Damien Woody and improving our offensive line, by adding wide receivers that pose a passing threat," Mariucci said. "The threat of the pass is going to keep those safeties out of the box so that we can run the football against seven in the box more often."

    Mariucci and president Matt Millen felt strongly that Artose Pinner, last year's fourth-round pick who is finally fully recovered from injury, will give them an improved rushing threat. And Shawn Bryson, who led the team in rushing and receptions last year, is a full year off his knee surgery and is expected to be more productive also.

    "That area is going to benefit," Mariucci said. "By drafting Roy Williams we just improved our running attack."

  • Lions president Matt Millen says he has more fun drafting than he had being drafted by the Oakland Raiders, coming out of Penn State in 1980.

    "I was at Burger King, throwing down my third Whopper," Millen recalled, laughing. "True story. I was with Leo Wisniewski, who was taken by the Colts two years later.

    "I was sitting at Burger King and I had already thrown two of them down. I had just opened my third one and it came over the radio I was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders.

    "I looked up at Leo and I said, `They're going to play me at linebacker.' And he said, `Then you won't be needing this," and he took my Whopper and shoved it in his face. He still owes me."

    Millen had played defensive end and tackle at Penn State but enjoyed a 12-year NFL career at linebacker, winning four Super Bowl rings with three different teams - two with the Raiders, one with San Francisco and one with Washington.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "He'll probably pack a toothbrush and an extra tee-shirt, and he'll be here. That's why I like him." - Lions president Matt Millen on drafting linebacker Teddy Lehman in the second round.

    With the draft and most of the free agent signings out of the way, Lions coach Steve Mariucci has a pretty good idea of what he has to work with when the Lions go to training camp at the end of July.

    Most of the holes have been filled or adequately patched, but the Lions will be looking for a starting caliber right guard and they might even be looking for an additional defensive back to join Brian Williams and second-year man Terrence Holt at strong safety.

    They seem to have lost interest in going after OG Larry Allen with Dallas, so they'll probably wait until June to see who shakes loose.

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