Chris McCosky / The Detroit News
Allen Park— There have been times after the season’s final game when Dominic Raiola could look around and count on his hands the number of players likely to return.
That count took a lot longer after this year’s final game.
“I know the nucleus of this team is coming back,” he said. “We’ve walked out of here in the past not knowing what was going to happen. But I see most of these guys, coming back.”
That, as much as the season-ending four-game winning streak, is fueling optimism.
“Across the board, offense and defense, we are still looking to improve the roster,” coach Jim Schwartz said Monday. “We are still looking to improve our starting 22. But we aren’t looking at an overhaul. Even at the spots where we do have need, it’s not like it was last year with the defensive backs where we erased everybody except Louis Delmas.
“There are a lot of guys here that we will continue moving forward with, and a lot of them might not be starters.”
Every starter and main backup on offense is expected to return for 2011.
On defense, starting defensive end Cliff Avril can be a restricted free agent (pending a new collective bargaining agreement), while starting cornerback Chris Houston and defensive end Turk McBride could become restricted free agents.
The Lions, however, can tender offers to all three.
Among those who likely have played their final games in Detroit are outside linebacker Julian Peterson, cornerback Nathan Vasher (unrestricted) and safety C.C. Brown (unrestricted).
Outside linebacker Landon Johnson is also unrestricted, but the Lions may try to keep him.
“We have talked before about having to address the starting 22 before you can address your depth,” Schwartz said. “What has happened this year is, because of the injuries and other things, we have been able to address a lot of the depth issues. Now we have to start adding pieces to the starting 22.”
The top two are set. Matthew Stafford , who said Monday his shoulder was nearly back to full strength, is the starter, and Shaun Hill , who led the team to three victories, is No. 2.
The Lions would love to re-sign Drew Stanton as the No. 3, but as an unrestricted free agent, he will be looking to compete for a No. 1 or No. 2 spot somewhere. Still, if no suitable opportunities come his way, he said he would have no trouble returning as the third option.
The top two spots are set — probably. Jahvid Best (turf toe) said he will need at least eight weeks of rest to completely heal. He should be ready to resume the starting role next season.
Maurice Morris , entering his 10th season, will have the first shot to win the backup role, but the Lions are expected to bring in one and probably two other backs.
They will have to decide whether to bring back Kevin Smith , who has had health issues the last three seasons, and underachieving second-year man Aaron Brown . The guess is Smith comes back, not Brown.
FB Jerome Felton could be a restricted free agent, but the Lions are expected to bring him back.
Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson will be back, as will return ace and jack-of-all-trades Stefan Logan .
But the Lions will be looking to upgrade the depth.
Bryant Johnson , who has one year left on his contract ($3 million), was unproductive all season.
Derrick Williams , a former third-round pick, has been a disappointment the last two seasons.
Absolutely set with Brandon Pettigrew , Tony Scheffler and Will Heller signed through next season.
The starters are expected back, although there is some concern about RG Stephen Peterman , who struggled at times (partly due to a lingering foot injury).
Corey Hilliard , who filled in admirably when RT Gosder Cherilus went down, can be a restricted free agent. It’s hard to imagine the Lions letting him go, but some team could swoop in and steal him.
The Lions signed veteran T Tony Ugoh late, but he wasn’t able to get on the field before rookie Jason Fox did, so it’s doubtful he’s part of the plan.
At end, Kyle Vanden Bosch is expected to make a full recovery from neck surgery and start. E Lawrence Jackson also will return. And it seems improbable the Lions wouldn’t re-sign Cliff Avril and Turk McBride .
It will be interesting to see what they do about rookie Willie Young . They love his athleticism, but he’s going to have to show them a lot more maturity and a stronger work ethic next season.
At tackle, starters Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams , as well as top reserve Sammie Hill , are back. The Lions will have to make a decision on backup Andre Fluellen , who can be a restricted free agent.
This is one of the biggest areas of need.
DeAndre Levy will return and probably start at middle linebacker. But there he might be moved outside, depending on whom the Lions draft or acquire through trade or free agency.
Most likely there will be two new starters on the outside. The Lions aren’t bringing back Julian Peterson and his $8 million contact. And Zach Follett , the starter before suffering a serious neck injury, may not be ready.
Bobby Carpenter and Ashlee Palmer will likely return, but not as starters.
Landon Johnson is a tricky one. They loved his play, but he has a history of concussions.
The Lions also will have to make a decision on Jordon Dizon , an undersized middle linebacker who blew out his knee in the first exhibition.
The Lions probably will invest significantly to bring Chris Houston back. He showed he could be a shutdown cornerback on the left side and drafting at No. 13, they aren’t likely to get the impact player they hoped for.
The right side corner spot is wide open. Alphonso Smith probably will get the first shot to win it. Tye Hill , Aaron Berry , Brandon McDonald , Prince Miller , Jack Williams and Eric King could be in the mix.
At safety, Louis Delmas is the only sure bet.
The Lions liked the development of rookie Amari Spievey , and veteran John Wendling is a valuable special teams player.
The Lions may have a camp battle for the kicking spot.
Jason Hanson is coming off surgery the last two seasons. Although he is the incumbent, and coach Jim Schwartz said Monday his confidence hasn’t wavered, Dave Rayner has earned at least the right to compete.
All the coaches are under contract and expected back.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan ‘s name may come up regarding coaching vacancies, but he has said numerous times he is content with his role in Detroit.