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Lions add playmakers in strong draft

Uh, no, we're not prepared yet to confer genius status on Detroit Lions president Matt Millen, because, let's be honest, you've got to win more than 10 games in three seasons to be transformed from a guy many people consider a meathead into a mastermind.

But in orchestrating a second consecutive solid draft over the weekend, Millen took yet another step toward having the imaginary dunce cap removed from his cranium, and the Lions may have taken a quantum leap toward respectability. Six choices, not exactly a bounty in terms of raw numbers, but probably three starters.

That's the quick-take analysis on the Lions' draft class and, in anyone's book, if you come out of any draft with three prospects who are going to get on the field immediately, well, you've done a pretty nice job. Sure, the fact Detroit figures to add three rookie starters to a roster that continues to get significantly greener and more Mooch-friendly, is due in part to the dubious talent pool on hand. But you keep raising the bar with a dose of fresh blood every year, suddenly the transfusions take hold, and a club is healthy again.

Over the weekend, Millen and coach Steve Mariucci added two more playmakers on the offensive side in wide receiver Roy Williams and tailback Kevin Jones. We're not as sold on Jones, who doesn't break very many tackles in the hole, as some. But after the collection of tailbacks with which the Lions lined up in 2003, the former Virginia Tech star looks like the second coming of Barry Sanders by comparison. Add Williams to last year's first-rounder, wideout Charles Rogers, who should be sound after missing all but five games in '03 because of a fractured collarbone, and that's the making of a viable tandem. And Tai Streets, signed as a free agent, is a competent No. 3 wide receiver.

It certainly improves the arsenal for third-year quarterback Joey Harrington, and, truth be told, that is Detroit's not-so-hidden agenda. Make no mistake, there are some Harrington skeptics in Motown, some of them cashing Lions paychecks, so the plan is to surround the quarterback with as much weaponry as possible. This weekend took care of a few of those spots.

The draft also added another piece to the defensive puzzle, in linebacker Teddy Lehman, who isn't quite as good as his press clippings, but who plays with the same fire Millen once exhibited. Cornerback Keith Smith from McNeese State was a mini-heist in the third round. Even the Lions' final choice of the lottery, Purdue left offensive tackle Kelly Butler, was a bargain.

OK, he was a bargain because, like the pair of underwear you just purchased at K-Mart and found to have no elastic in the band, Butler was marked "reject" by a lot of teams because of off-field issues. But the Lions, who already have a very good young left tackle in Jeff Backus, should be able to straighten Butler out and make something of a guy with second-round talent who they snatched in the sixth round.

The bottom line is that Detroit edges out Arizona, Atlanta and Oakland for the best draft. But know this: If we were doing the traditional draft report card again (and thanks, boss, for not foisting that exercise in tedium on us), there were be even fewer "A" grades than we normally distributed. It was a "C" draft for most teams, not a weekend in which many clubs distinguished themselves, not a lottery where, halfway through the fifth round, you said to yourself, "Wow, now that team is having a heck of a draft!"

Now for the best (or, in some cases, the worst) of the rest of our categories:

  • Delayed reaction: Someone might want to remind Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher that the Steelers were 6-10 last season and have been to the postseason only twice in the last six years. Cowher presided over a draft for the long-term when he could be on a short-term leash. More so than any other team, at least arguably, the Steelers assembled a draft class that will offer little immediate succor. Yep, they got their quarterback for the future. And, yeah, they chose a potentially terrific cornerback (Ricardo Colclough), but one who was playing at the Division II level just four months ago and will need some nurturing. So passer Ben Roethlisberger and pass defender Colclough will serve their apprenticeships and then, if the Steelers don't win in '04, will benefit whoever succeeds Cowher on the Heinz Field sideline.

    Not a lot of immediate help, either, from the Indianapolis draft. The Colts seem to be trying to assemble a safety corps of Munchkins, having followed the 2003 selection of Mike Doss with the choice of 5-foot-8 Bob Sanders this weekend. The Colts got to within one victory of a Super Bowl berth in 2003 and adding depth, as they did in this draft, is admirable, but another difference-maker (like a cornerback) would have been nice. By choosing Sanders, it allows the Colts to move Donald Strickland back to the corner, but he hasn't earned his stripes yet. One more team that didn't elicit much help for 2004 was Kansas City, which might have been better served keeping its first-round choice and using it to take speedy wide receiver Rashaun Woods.

  • Head scratchers: Armed with eight picks in the top 123 selections, the Cincinnati Bengals went boldly into the lottery and then, well, didn't act very boldly at all. They don't particularly like us in Cincy, largely because they never seem to correctly interpret what we write about the franchise. Anyway, kudos to owner Mike Brown, chided in other quarters for believing he could squeeze out a second-round draft pick for malcontent tailback Corey Dillon (something a few folks in his own building didn't think possible), and then doing so. Oh, if the Bengals had used their draft bounty with such daring.

    The team's first three draft choices -- tailback Chris Perry (No. 26 overall), cornerback Keiwan Ratliff (No. 49) and safety Madieu Williams (No. 56) -- all seemed to be about a half-round premature. We'll never know, but the bet here is Cincinnati could have gotten Perry at 49th, Ratliff at 56th and, well, you get the picture. One thing the draft did do was permit the franchise to import more Marvin Lewis-type players and the coach deserves credit for being faithful to his draft board. It just seems to us (and from talking to scouts around the league we aren't the only ones) that the Bengals didn't quite get the bang they could have from all those amassed choices.

  • Boom-or-bust pick: Some of these categories you agonize over. This one? Well, it took about five seconds. Long before Saturday afternoon, when the Philadelphia Eagles took Shawn Andrews with the 16th selection in the first round, the Arkansas right offensive tackle already defined the term "boom or bust." But when the Eagles jumped 12 spots up the first-round rung -- faking out all the pundits who surmised they were leap-froggin' clubs to get a shot at a cornerback or Oregon State tailback Steven Jackson -- and took Andrews, it dramatically raised the boom-or-bust ante.

    Andrews could perhaps move inside and vie for the starting job at left guard, the void created by Sunday's trade of veteran John Wellbourn to Kansas City. The chances are better he will be groomed to eventually supplant Jon Runyan, 30, at right tackle. But no matter where he plays, Andrews is a guy who remains a suspect prospect until he proves he can control his weight. If that's the case, he could be a monster blocker, a player who goes to multiple Pro Bowl games. Or, on the flip side, he could eat himself out of a job.

    Other boom-or-bust prospects in the first round: defensive end Kenechi Udeze (Vikings), because of shoulder problems; tailback Chris Perry (Bengals); defensive end Justin Babin (Texans); and aptly-named cornerback Chris Gamble (Panthers).

  • Chutes-and-ladders award: Remember the old kids pursuit, the remedial board game even a diaper-clad toddler could play, and win? Well, in this situation, linking players from the same school, Georgia tight end Ben Watson rode the ladder and Bulldogs free safety Sean Jones took a slide down the chute.

    Arguably the second-rated safety on the board, and a guy some scouts told us (or, more accurately, lied to us) might sneak into the last part of the first round, Jones lasted until deep into the second stanza. The Cleveland Browns, who landed the athletic and hard-hitting Jones with the 59th overall choice, got themselves a keeper. On the other hand, no one had Watson going in the first round, but New England grabbed him with the final choice of the stanza.

    If there has been one chink in the armor of the Bill Belichick-Scott Pioli axis over the years, it might be their record on tight ends. Watson is the sixth prospect they've taken at the position since 2000. He's on a ladder now but beware the chute.

  • Impact rookies: We'll take tight end Kellen Winslow (Cleveland) on offense and corner DeAngelo Hall (Atlanta) on the defensive side. The quality each player possesses? The new buzz-word in the scout-ese lexicon: Explosiveness.

    New Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia is the kind of guy who will make good use of a tight end of Winslow's unique skills. In Atlanta, the fans are already hailing the flashy and confident Hall as the reincarnation of Deion Sanders. He might find it harder than he thinks to approximate that standard, but Hall is a difference-maker, and will help initiate the revamping of the NFL's worst defense.

    For runner-up on offense, we're choosing tailback Tatum Bell (Denver), because he'll be playing in a system that turns even modestly talented backs into 1,500-yard rushers.

  • Most productive rookie wide receiver: Last season, the rookie of the year was a wideout from the second round. With so many luminaries in this year's first-round class of pass-catchers, someone better step up. And it says here that someone will be Mark Clayton of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

    Clayton is hardly the swiftest of the first-round receivers, but he is extraordinary in and out of his cuts, very fluid, a nice fit in the Jon Gruden design. If the 49ers had a veteran quarterback, Rashaun Woods would have been a candidate.

    Of course, as a Pitt grad, we love Larry Fitzgerald, but there are only so many balls to go around in Arizona, and Anquan Boldin is going to get the lion's share.

  • The "Mother Hubbard's Cupboard" citation: As noted on this site Saturday evening in a draft notebook, nobody works harder to restock the shelves than Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, and this weekend was no exception.

    The Titans lost a pair of defensive line starters, end Jevon Kearse and tackle Robaire Smith, in free agency. So Reese's draft included three ends and two tackles, all of whom are going to get the chance to play quickly. Longtime tight end standout Frank Wycheck retired, so Reese grabbed Ben Troupe, one of the best picks in the second round.

    Tennessee even took two fullbacks -- consider, there were only five chosen among the 255 selections -- because Tennessee's cap squeeze might prevent it from keeping Robert Holcombe around. Some "feed the needy" association ought to spend a week or two watching Reese in action, because the guy is adroit at filling voids.

  • See ya later (non-quarterback division) weekend: With four quarterbacks chosen in the first round, some incumbents could soon be out of jobs, and leading the pack is New York Giants starter Kerry Collins.

    But, hey, how about the Green Bay Packers positioning themselves to deal off unhappy cornerback Mike McKenzie. The Pack selected corners, Ahmad Carroll of Arkansas and Joey Thomas from Montana State, with their first two picks. See ya later, McKenzie.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.