After Strong Offseason, Lions Look to Make a Move
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; 11:04 AM
The Detroit Lions have had a superb offseason, assembling one of the NFL's best groups of young players at the "skill" positions on offense. They have a proven winner in Coach Steve Mariucci and are on their way to being a contender again. The problem for the Lions is that there was such a long way to go, and they might not quite get there this fall.
The strong offeseason couldn't come at a better time for Matt Millen, whose tenure as team president has been marked by controversy and losses. He inherited a club that went 9-7 in 2000 and turned it into a team that has gone 2-14, 3-13 and 5-11. Millen was fined $200,000 by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue last year for violating the Rooney Rule -- named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the head of the league's workplace diversity committee -- by failing to interview a minority candidate before hiring Mariucci as coach.
But the Ford family, which owns the franchise, has stuck with Millen, who has had what is clearly his best offseason of retooling as an NFL executive.
In free agency, Millen got an impact offensive lineman, signing guard Damien Woody to a six-year, $31-million contract that included a $9-million signing bonus. On the same day -- March 5 -- he got a top-coverage cornerback, signing Fernando Bryant to a six-year, $24-million deal that included a $7.25-million signing bonus. Millen also got some likely contributors with second-tier free-agents, signing third wide receiver Tai Streets and veteran safety Brock Marion for more modest deals.
Millen's best work came on draft day, though. With University of Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. available for the sixth overall pick, the Lions got the Cleveland Browns to surrender a high second-round choice -- No. 37 overall -- to move up one spot. The Browns got Winslow, but the Lions got Texas wide receiver Roy Williams -- thought by some teams to be worthy of a top-three selection -- with the seventh overall choice, and Oklahoma linebacker Teddy Lehman with the second-rounder they got from Cleveland in the trade.
When Virginia Tech tailback Kevin Jones dropped to the final few picks of the first round, Millen traded second- and fourth-round picks this year and a fifth-round choice next year to the Kansas City Chiefs to get the 30th overall selection and take Jones, who had plummeted because of slower-than-expected 40-yard-dash times in workouts for NFL scouts. But he was an explosive, productive player in college and represents a clear upgrade at the position for the Lions, who ranked last in the league in rushing offense last season. The additions of Jones and Woody could go a long way toward changing that.
Quarterback Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, now has a cast of receivers that includes starters Williams and Charles Rogers, the second overall choice in the 2003 draft, and reserves Streets and Az-Zahir Hakim. The addition of Lehman offsets the free-agent loss of Barrett Green, and Bryant and Marion should help immensely in the secondary.
Mariucci showed in his six seasons in San Francisco that he could win, and he showed that he could rebound from losing to win again. He began his 49ers tenure with 13- and 12-win seasons, then suffered through a rebuilding seasons of 12 and 10 losses. He recovered with 12- and 10-victory seasons and now has the Lions on their way. Their talent on offense should ensure them of being playoff contenders within two seasons, but there will be some growing pains along the way, and a run at .500 next season would have to be regarded as an accomplishment.
Next: Green Bay Packers
Around the League
49ers Might Stick With What They Have
An NFL source familiar with San Francisco's quarterback situation said the 49ers might be content not to sign a veteran even with the torn groin muscle that forced starter Tim Rattay to undergo surgery Tuesday. The 49ers are handcuffed by a tight salary-cap situation and have believed since before they released Jeff Garcia in March that Ken Dorsey, who now is atop their depth chart, is capable of doing the job, the source said.
If the 49ers do make a move, the source said, they might try to acquire Jon Kitna, the recently supplanted Cincinnati starter who was formerly coached in Seattle by 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson. Although Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis has decided to start Carson Palmer over Kitna next season, Kitna signed a contract extension with Cincinnati and the Bengals probably would be reluctant to trade him.
Collins Expected to Land in Oakland
A veteran agent familiar with the still-active quarterback market said he expects free agent Kerry Collins to sign with the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants to sign Kurt Warner after his expected release from the St. Louis Rams next month.
The Raiders are the right fit for Collins, the agent said, because Collins can do the things that owner Al Davis and Coach Norv Turner want from a quarterback in terms of throwing down the field. Davis is not enamored with current Raiders backup Marques Tuiasosopo, the agent said, and Collins perhaps could supplant Rich Gannon as Oakland's starter. But contract negotiations with Collins and Gannon will be delicate and don't necessarily have to move quickly, the agent said.
Warner's chances of ending up with the Giants were bolstered when club officials reportedly told him during two days of meetings this week that he would be able to compete with top overall draft choice Eli Manning for the starting job.
R. Johnson Signs 1-Year Deal With Bengals
Tailback Rudi Johnson signed the one-year, $1.824-million contract Tuesday that the Bengals tendered him in restricted free agency, but the two sides still would like to agree to a long-term deal. If they don't, Johnson would be eligible for unrestricted free agency next offseason.
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