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Mariucci has Lions going in right direction

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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