(ALLEN PARK)- The start of Friday's minicamp session with rookies and selected veterans will mark the start of a pitched battle for several roster spots up for grabs on Steve Mariucci's depth chart.
Not since the days of Bobby Ross will there be as many battles for roster spots as there will be this off-season.
For the first time, Detroit has talent on their roster and depth. Lions president and CEO Matt Millen did a nice job late of signing players who can be a factor on the field in September. He followed that effort by drafting 11 players, at least eight of who will have a direct effect on Mariucci's roster. Finally, he added seventeen undrafted free agents, a couple of whom have a real chance of sticking.
With all those players competing for 53 spots on the roster, let's take a look at where the most significant battles are likely to be waged.
LINEBACKER: This position underwent almost a complete turnover. The player most on the spot; veteran Barrett Green. The sole holdover from the days of Ross/Moeller regime, Green is in a contract year and quite simply, it's time for him to make some plays.
Green appeared to be in the driver's seat after the departure of Chris Claiborne. He was all set to take over the middle linebacker spot, a move that might have propelled him to a career year statistically. But then, Millen signed not one, but two middle linebackers; Wali Rainer of Jacksonville and Earl Holmes of Cleveland.
That moved Green back to his familiar weak side spot, a spot where quite frankly his production has been quite average. Then the Lions drafted Boss Bailey of Georgia, a speedy player with Derrick Brooks-like abilities and penciled him in at the strong side position, despite his obvious weak side talents.
Simply stated, 70 tackles from the weak side position aren’t going to cut it. Green will have to step up his production or either be forced to take a lesser role, one that will likely mark this as his last year in Detroit.
Meanwhile, with linebackers Bailey, Holmes, Rainer and Green likely in the playing group, Detroit added West Virginia linebacker James Bailey to a group of holdovers including Josh Thornhill, Ken Philpot, Chaz Murphy and Jody Littleton. At least two players off last seasons depth chart, maybe three, are going to be in the unemployment line.
RUNNING BACK: One running back spot is up for grabs. James Stewart is in the second year of his renegotiated deal that likely included a roster spot guarantee. The fifth year with its $5.9 million base salary remains intact which means this is likely Stewart's last year in Detroit. He'll need to impress to land on his feet in 2004.
Shawn Bryson, who was injured in Buffalo and was signed as an unrestricted free agent, gives Detroit insurance at the position. Bryson is raw and untested having played in only 37 games in his NFL career with his best season his rookie year when he gained 591 yards on 161 carries (3.7 avg).
Also added to the mix is rookie Artose Pinner, a player who runs low to the ground, bounces off tacklers and catches the ball well. Pinner, coming off a broken fibula, won't participate in this camp, but his presence will be felt. Gone are Aveion Cason (traded to Dallas) and Lamont Warren, but holdovers Rafael Cooper, NFL Europe star Autry Denson, and last year's 7th round pick Luke Staley all looking for three roster spots.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Shawn Bryson
WIDE RECEIVER: Despite an injury, Az-Zahir Hakim appears to be the key player in the success or failure of this corps. A speedy veteran who knows how the West Coast Offense works, Detroit needs Hakim to be fully recovered and work the open spots in opposing defenses. Hakim is said to be recovering well from the hip injury that he suffered, but others of a similar nature have proven to be career ending. Rookie Charles Rogers is the future at the "Z" position. Holdover Bill Schroeder will be given a chance to redeem himself from a spotty 2002 campaign, Eddie Drummond will stick as the team's primary returner, but rookies David Kircus, Travis Anglin and holdover Pierre Brown will be battling for a roster spot with another veteran receiver Detroit is likely to sign, perhaps as early as this weekend.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Rookie David Kircus, Grand Valley State
SAFETY: When the three safeties in your playing group are all over 30, it's time for some turnover. Corey Harris is a strong veteran presence in the locker room and a calming influence on the field. While Harris has slowed, he knows how to play the position. Bracey Walker is even slower and suffered a terrible lacerated liver injury that threatened his career. Walker returns along with last year's free agent signee Brian Walker who had his worst season as a pro after being released by Miami. Detroit selected NC State's Terrence Holt who will make the team on the strength of his special teams ability alone but figures to get some playing time. Lamar Campbell has yet to make an impact after six seasons in Detroit. Looming large is an unemployed Sammy Knight (New Orleans) who Detroit was planning to visit with just prior to the draft.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Lamar Campbell
We'll look at the battles at offensive line, fullback, corner and quarterback in the next installment.