The Detroit Lions have a ton of questions surrounding their cornerback group. Will we get all the answers in training camp?
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With rookies reporting to Detroit Lions training camp on Saturday, we’re closing out our positional preview series. While Detroit has spent a good majority of their offseason resources bolstering the trenches, the Lions’ secondary remains an intriguing unit. The ceiling of the group is almost as low as the floor, as Detroit’s young roster has many questions to answer.
Today, we talk specifically about the cornerback group, although there is a fair amount of overlap between them and the safeties.
Before we get into it, catch up with the rest of our training camp battle previews here:
The Detroit Lions incurred an absurd amount of injuries at the cornerback position that not only impacted the development of their young defensive backs but could alter Detroit’s plans for 2022.
The starting outside cornerback job—which was initially between Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, and Quinton Dunbar—ended up being Oruwariye and a rotating cast of characters opposite him due to Okudah suffering a torn Achilles in the season opener.
Rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu was the first to step up, but he was placed on IR after suffering a Week 2 injury (he would eventually come back and start three more games). Bobby Price, who made the conversion from safety in training camp, was up next but saw his defensive role almost completely disappear after struggling in two consecutive starts.
Next up was undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs, who not only held the role but thrived for two months as the starter. He earned a 66.0 coverage grade from PFF in nine starts, which ranked 28th among 67 starting NFL cornerbacks over that time. Unfortunately, his season came to an early end after tearing his ACL in Week 14.
Saivion Smith and Mark Gilbert were added to the roster late in the season to help Detroit’s thinning depth, but both rarely ended up seeing the field. That’s because safety Will Harris dropped down from safety and played significant snaps both at nickel and outside cornerback.
Speaking of the nickel position, undrafted rookie AJ Parker won that job out right out of camp. He held that role for 14 games, with Harris stepping in when Parker couldn’t. The Lions did keep veteran Nickell-Robey Coleman on the practice squad, but only made one game appearance and was not retained for 2022.
This offseason, the Lions did not invest much of anything at the position, choosing only to add competition at the nickelback job. They signed Mike Hughes to a one-year deal and drafted Chase Lucas in the seventh round. Instead, they’re hoping the position can stay much healthier this year and are banking on the development of their extremely young group.
Because there are a couple position versatile options—Harris, Melifonwu, Price—let’s just look at how many defensive backs the Lions may keep. Last year, Detroit only kept a total of 10 defensive backs on the original roster (six corners, four safeties), but that number fluctuated with the amount of injuries the Lions had to navigate through. But for the majority of the season, 10 seemed to be the goal with six corners and four safeties being the most common gameday roster.
Amani Oruwariye has one of the starting jobs on lock after completing the best season of his career in 2021. What isn’t quite settled is whether he’ll be the team’s top cornerback or CB2.
That is largely dependent on the health and skills of Jeff Okudah. During spring practice, Okudah looked close to returning to full participation, and during walkthroughs, he assumed a spot with the first-team defense. However, when full team drills commenced, it was mostly converted safety Will Harris who played opposite Oruwariye. Even if Okudah starts Day 1 in training camp, he’ll still have to win out a position considering how little on-the-field results we’ve seen from him in two years.
Harris seems to have found a new home at the cornerback position. Last year, he filled in valiantly midway through the season, and he looked even more comfortable at that position during OTAs.
“His growth has happened with being really fundamental at corner, while still understanding the savvy part of the game that comes from safety,” defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said in June.
Jacobs proved he could be solid depth at the outside cornerback position, but it’s unclear when he’ll be physically ready after his ACL tear. He did not participate during spring practices, but he has promised he’ll be back “sooner than you think.”
Melifonwu’s spot on the roster is probably safe due to his age and draft status, but it’s unclear if he’ll spend more time in the cornerback or safety room. He spent about a week working at safety during OTAs, but because he suffered an injury and sat out the rest of offseason workouts, it’s unclear whether the Lions were just testing that out or if it’s a more permanent move for Melifonwu. Safeties coach Brian Duker suggested he may be more of a matchup type of defensive back, wavering between the two positions. He was also impressed with what he’s seen thus far out of Melifonwu at safety.
“He’s really smart, picked up the defense really quickly and he’s come out and communicated really well. He’s always had really good range. He’s always been a really good athlete. So for him, it’s just learning the next side. The run fits are probably a little bit different than what you’re used to out there at corner.”
Bobby Price will have another year of cornerback under his belt, but after essentially being benched last year, he’ll have to come out of training camp looking much more comfortable in the position change. He did finish 2021 fifth in special teams snaps, but he’ll need to bring more to the table with increased competition.
Gilbert had one of the biggest plays in Detroit’s tie against the Steelers, forcing a fumble after allowing a big reception. That effort scored him brownie points and a new futures deal this offseason, but the 25-year-old cornerback played only three defensive snaps after that game and contributed in only a minor role on special teams. He has a lot of real estate to make up this training camp.
Smith has some past starting experience with the Cowboys in 2020, but he was purely a special teamer in two game appearances for the Lions last year. In spring camp, when Melifonwu was unable to practice, he saw some cross-training at the third safety position. Still, this is a player who led the Alabama Crimson Tide in interceptions for the 2018 season. There is talent there.
Parker returns as the incumbent following a decent season. However, he’ll have to make a Year 2 jump to hold onto the job. While his performance was way above expectation, he still managed just a 48.3 PFF grade last season.
Hughes—a former first-round pick— struggled in his first three seasons as an outside cornerback with the Vikings, but in 2021, he performed admirably as the Chiefs’ nickelback. While he did allow eight touchdowns, he still managed a 72.2 coverage grade from PFF. Hughes split snaps with Parker as the starting nickelback during OTAs. While Hughes has the edge over Parker in versatility and experience, the Lions have proven they are willing to give the job to whoever actually wins it.
Chase Lucas is not your typical seventh-round rookie. After five years of playing experience at Arizona State, Lucas is already 25 years old. That experience and maturity was easy to see during minicamp when Lucas showed an innate ability to match coverages and bark out orders to his teammates.
“You see Lucas, great short space quickness, great agility, has some position flexibility, and he’s very vocal,” Pleasant said. “He’s a leader out there.”
Cedric Boswell was part of the Lions’ undrafted rookie free agent class. He played mostly outside cornerback at Miami (Ohio), but his size limitations likely mean he’ll likely play at nickel at the next level. He won’t realistically make the roster this year, but he’s yet another young, developmental option for the practice squad.
Jeremy: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept a total of eight cornerbacks and four safeties. Our cornerbacks included Oruwariye, Okudah, Parker, Harris, Melifonwu, Hughes, Jacobs, and Lucas.
First off, Erik, we’re going to have to justify keeping 12 defensive backs here. Do you think that’s still possible? If not, is nickelback somewhere to cut? We essentially had all three competitors for that spot (Parker, Hughes, Lucas) on the 53-man roster.
Erik: Twelve is certainly a lot—two above traditional expectations—but it’s worth pointing out we weren’t the only beat writers to end up at that number in their spring 53-man projections—The Athletic kept seven corners and five safeties, but listed Melifonwu with the later group.
I remain comfortable with three nickel corners for a few reasons. First, is the amount of subpackage use in today’s NFL, as the Lions’ will likely need two inside players to comfortably operate in Dime sets. Second, the injuries at outside corner are still in limbo, which could push Hughes into seeing more reps there early in the season. And finally, the bottom line for me is, when I am considering the final few spots on the roster, I think the talent level of DB11 and 12 is greater than some of the other fringe spots on the roster.
But to answer the second part of your question, I really have no idea which nickel cornerback might be on the bottom of the depth chart. I would assume it’s Lucas, being a rookie, but I tell ya, I love what I see from him and am not willing to drop him at this time. Could it be Parker? Hughes? I’m not sure. And that’s probably a good thing.