(Sports Network) - They were only baby steps, but for the first time in years the Lions have some reason for optimism after a two-game improvement in 2003. Head coach Steve Mariucci couldn't lead the Lions to a road win, but the team finished 5-3 at home, and never quit despite an avalanche of injuries.
The Lions made a pair of good moves in free agency a season ago, signing DT Dan Wilkinson, who experienced a career rebirth last season, and CB Dre' Bly. The team was criticized for overspending on Bly, but he had his best season since his standout freshman year at the University of North Carolina. Bly had six interceptions and five forced fumbles despite missing two games.
Veteran middle linebacker Earl Holmes was still capable and led the Lions in tackles. The best offseason move, though, was not trading DT Shaun Rogers. The Lions were offering Rogers up for a second-round pick, but were glad there were no takers. The Rogers-Wilkinson-Holmes trio up the middle allowed Detroit to finish a respectable 15th against the run.
To continue their improvement, the Lions need to add some more pieces to the defense and find a playmaker on offense. Once first-round pick Charles Rogers was injured in Week 5 the Lions had no one opposing defenses had to account for. Running backs Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary were unimpressive when starter James Stewart was sidelined for the season. Bryson is an unrestricted free agent the Lions are unlikely to re-sign if Stewart reworks his contract. If Stewart doesn't restructure his deal, Detroit could release him. Mariucci coached free agents Charlie Garner and Garrison Hearst while at San Francisco and both would provide Detroit an upgrade at the position.
The Lions could grab one of the many stud receivers in this year's draft with the sixth pick, or could make a run at a receiver in free agency like Darrell Jackson, the top unrestricted free agent. One player Mariucci won't seek a reunion with is Terrell Owens.
As well as Bly played, he's not a great cover corner. Detroit struck out in a bid to bring Champ Bailey in to play with his brother Boss. The Lions basically held in-season auditions at the corner spot opposite Bly, turning to the ancient Otis Smith and Doug Evans. The team allowed 26 touchdown passes, 29th in the NFL, and must improve the pass defense.
Up front, the Lions will try to retain DE James Hall, who is strong against the run and an established starter at 27. They will have competition to keep him and linebacker Barrett Green, who is another promising young starter. The Lions would like to retain guards Eric Beverly and Ray Brown at the right price. However, Hall should be Detroit's top priority among its own free agents. The guard and linebacker positions are deep in this free agency class.
Like almost every team the Lions need a pass rusher. Kansas City defensive end Eric Hicks and Denver's Bertrand Berry are two free agents that would be an improvement without breaking the bank.
KEY UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB-Ty Detmer, RB-Shawn Bryson, WR-Shawn Jefferson, OG-Ray Brown, OG-Eric Beverly, OT-Kerlin Blaise, DT-Kelvin Pritchett, DE-James Hall, LB-Brian Williams, LB-Barrett Green, LB-Jeff Gooch, CB-Otis Smith, S-Bracy Walker, CB-Doug Evans, P-John Jett.
KEY RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB-Mike McMahon, FB-Stephen Trejo, WR-Scotty Anderson, WR-Reggie Swinton, LB-Donte Curry, P-Nick Harris.