| Steve Myers
|Returning rookies provide base for future
By James Royer
February 4, 2004
James Davis is one of 10 members of Detroit's 2003 rookie class who could make an impact in 2004
ALLEN PARK, Mich. - When Steve Mariucci took over as head coach of the Detroit Lions, he noticed that something was missing from the roster.
He found the Lions had a plethora of youth. In fact, of Detroit's 24 players selected in the last three NFL drafts, 19 of them are still on the roster. In addition, a total of 35 players on the final day roster are still on their first contract (one-to-three years in the league).
On the other side of the equation, the Lions also had 21 players who were aged 30 or more years.
Mariucci noted the missing piece was that the team lacked balance in the middle. A total of nine players were on their second contract (four-to-six years of experience).
"The way the team right now is built, we’ve got quite a few 30-plus guys as you know and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the fact of the matter that we’ve got 30-plus players on this team," Mariucci said. "So we’re either veteran-like or relatively young.
"We have very few in the middle so when I say in the middle, those are players typically in the prime of their career that are healthy and relatively young and fresh and playing at their highest level. To acquire a couple more of those guys, to develop our youngsters into that category is going to be important in going forward."
While the Lions will most likely shop the free agent market to add to the middle segment of players in their prime, Mariucci knows the development of those youngsters in the early stages of their career will be crucial to the long-term success of the team.
Detroit, which saw 10 different rookies all get a considerable amount of snaps in 2003, is well on its way to developing that next base. An influx of youth will not only help build the Lions' roster for the next three-to-four years, it will help the team develop stability and depth.
"We need to settle into a group of personnel that will be around for a little bit," Mariucci said. "I think we are going to become younger, faster and with that said, you become a little more simplified. That is natural and necessary. Then you progress from there."
If anything, the biggest thing the 2003 rookie class brought to Detroit besides youth was speed and athleticism. As the architect of the roster, Mariucci wants the cornerstone of the building process to be fast players on both sides of the ball. The Lions are well on their way with the likes of Boss Bailey, Charles Rogers, Cory Redding, Artose Pinner, Terrence Holt and Rod Babers.
"I would like to be a faster team," Mariucci said. "We play on turf, we play indoors and that lends itself to be fast and quick – we have to use that to our advantage. It’s nice to have a 5-3 record (at home). We would like to be better than that and we will be better than that when we really start developing a home-field advantage; 5-3 at home is a decent start but we need to be a fast, fast football team."
The development of these members of the 2003 rookie class could, in many ways, dictate the progress of the team.
The following is a look at each of the 10 returning 2003 rookies and what they have to build upon for 2004.
Cornerback Rod Babers: The Lions claimed Rob Babers off waivers from the New York Giants on September 8. The 2003 fourth-round draft pick by New York played in five games and quickly made an impact on special teams. He also showed competitiveness as a cornerback before a shoulder injury against Chicago on November 9 ended his season. The coaching staff liked what they saw from Babers, and if healthy, he could compete for a nickel back role in 2004.
Linebacker Boss Bailey: Initially projected as a Top 15 pick in the 2003 NFL Draft because of his cornerback-type speed, teams stayed away from Boss Bailey because of a perceived tackling deficiency. Bailey slipped into the second round on draft day and Detroit quickly grabbed him. Not only did Bailey prove his critics wrong as he started all 16 games at the strong side linebacker position, he also served notice that he will be one of the cornerstones for the Detroit defense along with Shaun Rogers, Dre' Bly and Dan Wilkinson.
Running back Avon Cobourne: Team president and CEO Matt Millen was thrilled to pick up Avon Cobourne as an undrafted free agent just after the 2003 NFL Draft. He was only one of two undrafted players to make the opening-day 53-man roster. He emerged from a six-person race at running back in training camp and showed that he can run with the ball and catch it out of the backfield. He was allocated to NFL Europe, and should come back to training camp ready to compete for playing time.
Linebacker James Davis: If Mariucci wants to fill the roster with athletic and fast players, then James Davis definitely fits the bill. Even though injuries limited him to just eight games (one start) in 2003, Davis gained valuable experience. He even started the contest at Carolina in Week 16 and had a career-high five tackles as the middle linebacker. He showed he has the toughness to stop the run in the gap and the athleticism to drop back into coverage.
Tight end Casey FitzSimmons: Coming out of Carroll College in Montana as an undrafted free agent, Casey FitzSimmons was a pleasant surprise. From day one, he showed he had a feel for the passing game and could also run block. FitzSimmons started 11 games and finished the season as one of the NFL's top rookie tight ends. He caught two touchdown passes, which tied for the NFL lead among rookie tight ends, and also brought down a fourth-best 23 receptions.
Safety Terrence Holt: When the Lions used their first of two fifth-round picks on Terrence Holt, Detroit knew it was getting someone who could contribute on special teams. Holt gave the team much more than that. When injuries decimated the secondary, Holt moved from his safety position up to cornerback and came up big. He intercepted his first career pass in Detroit's 23-13 victory over Oakland. When Corey Harris went down late in the season, Holt moved back to safety and gave the team the promise of a bright future. He intercepted a total of three passes, which was the second-most among all NFL rookies. It was also the most for a Lions rookie since 1986. With a full off-season to learn the defensive scheme, Holt could be poised to battle for a starting role in 2004.
Receiver David Kircus: David Kircus needed a little time, so he spent the first 11 weeks on the team's practice squad. He made his NFL debut at Minnesota on November 23, and even started the game. All totaled, Kircus played in five contests and started two. He hauled down three passes for 53 yards. This could be an important off-season for Kircus. If he can add upper-body strength and get more familiar with the offense, he has a chance to make some things happen in 2004.
Running Back Artose Pinner: The Lions gambled with their fourth-round pick on draft day and took the 2002 Southeastern Conference's Offensive Player of the Year. The problem was that Artose Pinner would need some time to heal from a foot injury. The team remained patient with his recovery and he eventually played in the final three games and started the last two. Even though he didn't have a breakout performance, Mariucci was impressed with Pinner's ability to make defenders miss and break tackles. He remains an intriguing prospect to take over the starting running back role if he can completely recover from his injury.
Defensive end Cory Redding: Even though he played in nine games in 2003, third-round pick Cory Redding is still somewhat unknown. The Lions know he can contribute. He is also versatile, but the team has not settled on where he will play. Redding spent time in reserve roles at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Once he zones in on one position, Redding has the ability to fill depth initially and then possibly make a push for a starting role.
Receiver Charles Rogers: The second-overall selection in the 2003 NFL Draft quickly made an impact in the Lions offense. He caught two touchdown passes in his first game and had a team-best 22 receptions for 243 yards and three trips to the end zone in five games. His season was cut short after a broken collarbone sidelined him for the remaining 11 games. Mariucci told reporters in late January that the injury was still healing. One of the goals for Rogers is to build upper body strength so he can fight off the cornerback jam and get off the line of scrimmage. Until that injury completely heals, he will be unable to lift any weights.
Sun Feb 08, 2004 11:51 am