Mariucci has Lions going in right direction

With plenty of youth and talent on offense the Lions are looking to take a step forward in 2004.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:49 AM ET
By Curt Sylvester | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Progress is progress and -- in the case of the Lions -- they'll take it anyway they can get it. Including in microscopic doses.

That means going from 2-14 in 2001 to 3-13 in '02. And from 3-13 to 5-11 in '03.

Which brings them to a new season, with hopes -- even modest expectations -- for another step back toward NFL respectability in the second year under head coach Steve Mariucci.

Mariucci and team president Matt Millen have had back-to-back offseasons in which they have taken significant strides in reaching their goal of making the Lions younger and faster, and they're hoping the third adjective -- better -- will soon follow.

Not surprisingly, Mariucci and Millen have focused on improving their offense, which ranked dead last -- thanks to the least productive rushing game -- in the NFL last year.

They signed former Pro Bowl OG Damien Woody and veteran West Coast WR Tai Streets during free agency, and then followed with a solid draft in which they landed WR Roy Williams and RB Kevin Jones, both in the first round.

The questions as the Lions go into the regular season, however, are how quickly Williams and Jones will be assimilated into Mariucci's offense and whether they have enough defensive manpower to hold their own in a division featuring two high-caliber offenses in Green Bay and Minnesota. There is little doubt the Lions are a better team than Millen turned over to Mariucci a year ago, but how much better?

If they can break their current NFL-record 24-game road losing streak early in the season, some feel the Lions could break even in '04. That would be a three-game step up. It would get them back to respectability and let them focus on the next goal -- contending in the NFC North. One step at a time.

Quarterbacks: Joey Harrington has not lit it up in his first two NFL seasons. Some say Harrington struggled because he has been working without a running game and throwing to receivers incapable of getting open or catching the football. Millen has given him the supporting cast with Charles Rogers, Williams, Streets and Az-Zahir Hakim to throw to, and has dropped Jones into the offensive backfield to provide the big-play threat that had been missing. If Harrington plays all season as well as he did in last year's season finale, a 30-20 win over St. Louis after Mariucci challenged him in the locker room, he should be up to the task. Mike McMahon remains an enigma, an exceptional athlete with a strong arm who frequently seems to be operating out of control and has a career .423 completion percentage. Rick Mirer, the Oakland starter the second half of 2003, will be the No. 3 QB. Grade: C.

Running backs: No one is looking at Jones as the next Barry Sanders, but he brings the Lions a big-play threat they have lacked since Sanders' abrupt departure on the eve of the 1999 training camp. It remains to be seen exactly how Mariucci utilizes him in an offense that averaged 83.6 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Mariucci talked about using a two-man system he had used at times in San Francisco, with Jones and second-year back Artose Pinner sharing the load and Shawn Bryson as a change of pace. Pinner is a downhill runner who catches the ball well. Jones has the moves and the shake to make bigger things happen. FB Cory Schlesinger is still a load as a blocking back, and Paul Smith has the versatility to work at either position. Grade: C.

Receivers: This is the area that has gotten the biggest makeover since Millen's ill-fated attempt to build a passing offense around Bill Schroeder and Hakim. Schroeder was released, and Hakim will now do what the Rams knew all along he did best -- operate and get mismatches as the No. 4 receiver. The major players now will be Williams, the No. 7 pick in the draft; Rogers, the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft; and Streets, a veteran who knows the West Coast offense. Both Rogers and Williams provide the speed to make big plays after the catch. Harrington also will have two very capable tight ends in veteran Stephen Alexander, a Pro Bowler at Washington, and Casey FitzSimmons, who won the starting job last year as an undrafted rookie and looked even better in training camp this year. Grade: B-plus.

Offensive linemen: Harrington was sacked only 17 times in his first 1,000 NFL attempts to pass and, even though he has been too quick to pull the trigger at times, the Lions feel OTs Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle are doing a pretty good job at keeping the pass rush off him. C Dominic Raiola is somewhat short-armed and struggles in pass protection, but the Lions haven't lost faith in him, believing OL coach Pat Morris will help in his development. Woody, the Lions' highest-priced free-agent addition with a $9 million signing bonus, slides in at right guard. David Loverne, a backup who got virtually no playing time last year at St. Louis, has won the OLG job from Matt Joyce, who is valuable as a backup at all the line positions except center. The Lions' depth could be a concern. Grade: C-plus.

Defensive linemen: The Lions feel very good about the DT position with starters Shaun Rogers, whom they feel is one of the NFL's best, although still not generally recognized, and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, who seems to have found a happy home in Detroit since being signed as a free agent a year ago. The depth is solid with aging Kelvin Pritchett still capable, and DE Robert Porcher occasionally moving inside. The concern is how the Lions will manage at the DE spots. They are hoping Kalimba Edwards will give them the pass rush they need, but he didn't show it in training camp and now is being considered possibly as a pass-rush specialist with James Hall, Cory Redding and Porcher rotating at both ends. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: At best, the Lions are going to be young and inexperienced, but good. At worst, they are going to be injury-depleted, lacking in depth and at least a year away from being a dominant force in the NFL. They were counting heavily on "Sam" 'backer Boss Bailey, who played every snap and excelled last year as a rookie, to make another step forward with his excellent athletic ability and speed. After his arthroscopic knee surgery early in training camp, however, they're guessing when he'll be back - probably not until at least mid- or late October. The anticipated competition between youngsters James Davis and Alex Lewis in camp did not develop. Lewis missed most of camp with an ankle injury, and Davis sprained an ankle in the preseason. Earl Holmes and rookie Teddy Lehman make the Lions solid at MLB, but they might have to move Lehman to fill holes elsewhere. Backup Donte' Curry is solid and a strong special-teams player. Grade: C-minus.

Defensive backs: Taking into account their depth problems at the corners in recent years, Millen is taking no chances. He landed Dre' Bly, an eventual Pro Bowler, last year and added Fernando Bryant this year. With the return of Chris Cash, Andre Goodman and Rod Babers from last year's injury list, along with the addition of third-round pick Keith Smith, the Lions finally have depth at corner. They do not have the same luxury or quality at the safeties, however. They're hoping free-agent acquisition FS Brock Marion has enough gas left in the tank for another season or two, and that Terrence Holt and Brian Walker will manage the SS job. Grade: B-minus.

Special teams: If PK Jason Hanson had played with a contender or an offensive powerhouse, he'd be recognized as one of the NFL's most consistent quality kickers over the past 12 seasons. He's still very accurate with good distance, even on his kickoffs. The Lions love Eddie Drummond on returns if he can ever stay healthy, and they have Reggie Swinton if Drummond can't. P Nick Harris hasn't been terribly consistent yet, but he does a good job on holds, which is important to special-teams coach Chuck Priefer. Grade: B-plus.

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