Tatum Bell surprised himself when he re-signed with the Lions after not being used the last 11 games last season. Then the Lions surprised him by cutting Kevin Jones, making him the No. 1 running back -- at least at this point.
Bell figured he would have to compete with Jones. Now he figures he'll have to compete with another free agent or someone the Lions draft in April. Just like before, though, he expects to win. His goals: 1,300 yards, 15 touchdowns.
"We're actually a pretty good run-blocking team," Bell said. "We've just got to get used to doing it more."
The Lions didn't do much run-blocking last season under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. They didn't block much for Bell, especially. Bell began the season as the top back. But Jones returned from a foot injury, and as his role increased, Bell's decreased.
Bell was benched the second half of the Lions' fifth game, a blowout loss at Washington. His agent brought up the idea of a trade. He never played again -- and apparently never spoke to Martz again, either.
"I was the man for a while, and I think it was just predetermined, in my opinion, that when KJ got back he was going to be the starter," Bell said. "I knew Martz was pretty much in control of everything. I would have conversations with the coaches on the side last year, and it would be like, 'It's not my call.' That's all they would say. I wasn't one of Martz's guys, and that's just what it was."
Martz was fired after the season and replaced by Jim Colletto. Now the Lions plan to run a simpler, more-balanced offense, and they think Bell will fit well. It took a while to convince him, though.
"It was just going in one ear and out the other the first time," Bell said. "I was like, 'Yeah.' It was the same stuff they were telling me last year. Then when Colletto called me, that kind of made me feel better, that he was really jumping over the table for me and wanted me back."
Bell said he talked to the Lions' coaches once or twice a week. He still tested the free-agent market. Other teams showed interest but apparently backed off. The Lions made the best offer -- one year, $1.6 million -- and Bell put last year behind him.
"It was just a bad season," Bell said. "But I didn't burn no bridges with nobody. I think that's one of the main reasons I'm back."
The Lions cut Jones for two reasons: his contract and injuries. Coach Rod Marinelli said the Lions were close to the salary cap, and Jones had one year left on his contract with a base salary of $2.37 million. Jones is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, after coming back from a serious foot injury last year. "He might be ready to go," Marinelli said. "I don't know. I just wanted to make sure there was some clarity for us and trying to do what's right for our team."
The Lions did not go after the sexiest free agents. They again went after players familiar to their coaches, including four former Tampa Bay defensive players -- Dwight Smith, Brian Kelly, Chuck Darby and Kalvin Pearson. Marinelli, defensive coordinator Joe Barry and secondary coach Jimmy Lake all came from the Buccaneers' staff. "I wasn't interested in making a big splash name-wise, money-wise, all those things," Marinelli said. "I've never wanted that. I think it's really important when you go into free agency, you've got to be very careful what you're bringing into your locker room. All of a sudden you give a guy a heck of a salary coming in, you better make sure he's your type of guy. You bring in a guy who ... doesn't fit your team, that sends a bad message to your team just because you're bringing in some name guy."
Marinelli said he would rather develop talent than pay for it. He wants the splash players to come from the draft. "It might sound crazy to you guys, but I see everything five to 10 years down the road," Marinelli said. "That's me. That's how I look. I see that final picture, what it looks like, and it's going to be filled with some really good draft picks." Marinelli recognizes the Lions must do a much better job in the draft, though. He feels they have done well in the first two rounds since his arrival, but they must improve in the later rounds. "I'm just on it," he said. "I'm like an old nag right now. We've got to do a great job. We've got to hit home runs in the second day. There's too many good players every year."
Marinelli reiterated the Lions were not trading wide receiver Roy Williams. He waved his hands. He asked a reporter to look into his eyes. "Roy is here," he said. Told teams might call anyway, he said: "I guess probably when you're a beautiful girl, everybody keeps knocking on your door for a date. Then the old dad keeps coming out and says, 'Nope.' "
Quote To Note: "We will be disappointed to not win 10 games because, as I've said, to not win 10 means you're not in the playoffs. That's why we play. So that's the same expectation level we'll have this year. I'm still trying to get over the disappointment of last year to be honest with you." -- QB Jon Kitna, who talked about the Lions winning 10 games last year and watched them go 7-9.
The Lions have revamped the weakest part of the team -- the secondary. They have released Fernando Bryant; kept Travis Fisher and Keith Smith; and added Leigh Bodden, Brian Kelly, Dwight Smith and Kalvin Pearson.
But they still have some big holes to fill on defense. They lack two key pieces of the Tampa Two -- an elite pass rusher and a middle linebacker who can cover a ton of territory.
They also need to solidify the right side of their offensive line at a time when they plan to run the ball more. And running back vaulted up the need list with the release of Kevin Jones.
The Lions aren't expected to make any more major moves in free agency since room is tight under the salary cap. They tried and failed to fill some of their needs, pursuing a trade for Jonathan Vilma, visiting with Dan Morgan and trying to sign Julius Jones. There just isn't much left on the market.
To improve in some key areas, the Lions are going to have to improve in the draft.
1. Offensive tackle: The Lions tried to keep Damien Woody to play right tackle, but they weren't willing to pay what the New York Jets did. They have re-signed George Foster, but only as insurance. They badly need to upgrade this position at a time when they want to run the ball more. If Boise State's Ryan Clady, Vanderbilt's Chris Williams or Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah are still on the board at No. 15, the Lions could snap him up.
2. Defensive end: The Tampa Two defense relies on a strong four-man rush, and the Lions don't have an elite pass rusher. Kalimba Edwards didn't develop as hoped and as cut. Dewayne White is currently the starting right end, but he would be better as a left end. There do not appear to be any defensive ends that would fit at No. 15. The Lions will probably need to find one later.
3. Middle linebacker: The Lions don't have a Shelton Quarles to patrol the middle in the Tampa Two, let alone a Brian Urlacher. They tried to trade for Jonathan Vilma and looked into signing Dan Morgan. They have visited with Al Wilson and he remains a possibility. Ideally, the Lions would like to add a veteran and move Paris Lenon to the strong side. Without a Patrick Willis-type at No. 15, the Lions will probably have to find someone later in the draft.
4. Running back. The Lions lost free agent T.J. Duckett to Seattle, then watched the Seahawks win the battle for Cowboys free agent Julius Jones. Detroit re-signed Tatum Bell to ensure some veteran with experience was on the roster when they decided to cut Kevin Jones on March 13.