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2010 Season Breakdown: Defensive Backs

 

Image Courtesy of MLive.com

The Lions boast four defensive backs in the Hall of Fame, Lem Barney, Dick LeBeau, Jack Christiansen and Dick “Night Train” Lane.  In addition, they have had legendary players like Terry Barr, James “Hound Dog” Hunter and more recently Bennie Blades.  For a team that has such a rich history in the secondary, the Lions have struggled to assemble a consistant group of defensive backs for a long time. 

In 1997 the Lions drafted two cornerbacks in the first and second rounds, Bryant Westbrook and Kevin Abrams and followed up with another first rounder, Terry Fair in 1998.  Those three made up one of the best young cornerback groups in the NFL, until all three of them had promising careers derailed by injuries.  In 2002, the Lions drafted two promising young corners in Andre Goodman and Chris Cash.  Goodman was stupidly not resigned by Matt Millen and has had a solid career for the Dolphins and Broncos and Cash suffered a career ending knee injury in his second year.

In addition to the draft the Lions also tried solidifying the secondary through trades (Leigh Bodden) and free agency (Robert Massey, Mark Carrier, Brock Marion, Dre Bly, Fernando Bryant, Phillip Buchanon) with little success.

In 2010, the Lions revamped their secondary again getting rid of every member of the 2009 secondary except for Louis Delmas.  The on field result was better, but inconsistency and injuries have limited the secondary and it is still a position in need of an upgrade.

Chris Houston: Houston was a poor fit in Atlanta in Mike Smith’s defense and the Lions were able to acquire him for a song.  Houston has always had immense physical talent but had a hard time playing at a consistently high level.  Houston is a great tackler and showed improvement in his ball skills picking off one pass (two were called back on bogus penalties) and breaking up 12 passes.  Houston has ideal size for a corner and is more than willing to come up in run support, which endeared him to the coaching staff.  2011 Outlook: Houston will most likely be an unrestricted free agent once the CBA is in place.  Houston made a comment last fall that he wanted to test the market, but that was prior to the four game win streak.  The Lions want Houston back, but won’t break the bank for him.  I still think the two sides will reach an agreement and Houston will reprise his starting role in 2011.

Alphonso Smith: The front office needs to be commended for their fleecing of the Denver Broncos in training camp.  The Lions sent former 7th round pick Dan Gronkowski to the Broncos for former 2nd rounder Alphonso Smith.  Denver traded a 2010 1st rounder to move up and select Smith in the 2nd round of the 2009 Draft.  Smith had a poor rookie year, but he has great raw ability and untapped talent.  He’s smaller than you’d like, but he has good ball skill, great anticipation and good speed and quickness.  Smith only started 10 games (while learning a whole new defense) and he intercepted 5 passes, broke up 8 passes, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and returned a pick for a touchdown.  Smith needs to hone his technique and learn when to be aggressive and when to lay back, but he is on the right path.  Unfortunately for Smith, his worst game came on Thanksgiving and most people associate his ability with that game rather than his stellar performance in the other 11 he played.  2011 Outlook: Smith will be back after intercepting more passes than any Lion since Dre Bly.  Size-wise he’s better suited for the slot, but skills-wise he’s better suited for the outside.  Smith will compete with a rookie or free agent for a starting spot and should continue to be a playmaker in 2011 no matter what role he is in.  

Nathan Vasher: Vasher was off to a promising start to his career with the Bears, including a 2005 All Pro and Pro Bowl season, before injuries derailed him.  The Lions signed Vasher early in the season and he played sparingly until the last month of the season when injuries forced him into action.  Vasher stepped up and flashed some of that Pro Bowl form logging 15 tackles, 5 pass breakups and one interception in the last four games.  Vasher played a huge role in the Lions comeback win against the Dolphins with a pick and the game saving tackle in bounds that killed the clock on the Dolphins. When Vasher is healthy, he has a nose for the ball and has a knack for making big plays.  He is most comfortable in zone coverage, which he played a lot of in Chicago, and he’s a decent tackler. 2011 Outlook: Vasher will turn 30 late in the season, so he’s not a long term solution, but he does add value as a 4th cornerback with the potential to spot start.  I think he’ll be back unless the Lions are able to make major upgrades in the secondary.

Prince Miller: Miller was a late season addition to the Lions after being cut by the secondary needy Ravens.  He saw very little playing time until injuries forced him into a larger role the last three games.  2011 Outlook: Miller will probably be a camp body and is a long shot to make the team in the fall.

Aaron Berry: Berry went undrafted in the 2010 Draft because of off the field concerns.  The Lions felt comfortable enough to bring him in as an undrafted free agent and Berry took advantage of that opportunity.  Berry had a strong preseason and secured a spot on the final roster, but suffered a season ending injury int he first game. 2011 Outlook: Berry had a 3 tackle, 1 pass defensed and 1 interception performance in roughly one half of play, so he definitely flashed some potential.  I expect Berry to make a run for a roster spot in camp assuming he’s kept his nose clean.  Talent was never the issue with him and the Lions have a good support system in their locker room.

Brandon McDonald: McDonald is another young corner that was signed due to injuries and wound up injured himself.  McDonald was claimed off waivers in late October and started two games before winding up on IR.  McDonald was a regular starter in Cleveland his first couple years but was released when the front office turned over.  He had a two game stint in Arizona before getting cut and again showed some potential with the Lions.  2011 Outlook: McDonald has good size and decent speed but has played on nothing but bad secondaries his whole career.  He may have a shot in camp because of his age and experience, but I don’t expect he’ll make the roster.

Louis Delmas: Delmas had a monster rookie season that he couldn’t build on in 2010 due to a nagging groin injury suffered in the offseason.  Delmas had surgery once the season ended and should be commended for gutting it out all year.  Delmas looked a steo slower and lacked his explosive playmaking ability all year.  When healthy, Delmas is one of the most athletic safties in the league and has elite instincts.  Despite his smallish frame, he’s a great tackler and the hardest hitter in the secondary.  Delmas is also the unquestioned leader of the secondary and a building block for the future.  2011 Outlook: Delmas is one of the three young centerpieces in the middle of the defense along with Suh and Levy.

CC Brown: Brown is a one dimensional player with a wealth of experience but has never been more than a stopgap player.  He excels at stuffing the run at safety, but doesn’t have the feel or athleticism to be effective in coverage.  2011 Outlook: Brown will not be back in 2011.

Amari Spievey: Spievey was drafted as a cornerback, spent all offseason as a cornerback and moved to safety once the season started.  Spievey had nagging injuries all offseason which limited his ability to develop his technique and footwork at corner.  I wasn’t a big Spievey fan when the Lions drafted him because he’s not an upper tier athlete and looked more like a safety to me.  He landed at safety, but it’s not known if that’s a permanent move or because they just wanted to get him on the field and had poor safety play.  2011 Outlook: I am going to assume the move to safety was permanent and if that’s the case the Lions have a good young safety tandem.  Evaluating Spievey at safety was tough because he was just thrown in and never got comfortable enough to trust himself.  The Lions will bring in some help at safety but I think the starting role is his to lose.

Randy Phillips: Phillips is a young developmental project who drifted back and forth from the active roster and practice squad.  Phillips went undrafted because of injury concerns in 2010 but had an impressive collegiate career.  2011 Outlook: Phillips will be given every opportunity to make the team as a backup and special teamer in 2011.

John Wendling: Wendling was signed strictly as a special teamer and played special teams exclusively until the injuries added up.  He played well in limited action, but he’s not a viable every down defensive player.  2011 Outlook: Wendling will most likley not be back as the Lions would like their special teamers to be able to contribute on defense as well.

2011 Offseason: The Lions need to add some front line talent in the secondary including at least one starting cornerback and a safety to challenge Spievey for the starting job. The Lions have decent secondary depth, but the team has to worry about how many injuries the backups suffered.  The Lions probably won’t look to free agency to fill the needs in the secondary, they’ll probably build through the draft.  However, depending on how much an overhaul the coaches feel is needed, they may have no choice but to dip into free agency because they only have five draft picks.

The Lions will look hard a cornerback in the first two rounds, but this cornerback class is short on athletic players.  Most of the corners expected to go in the top two rounds have major question marks in speed and athleticism.  The Lions need a true coverage corner and there may not be a fitting prospect early in the draft, so the Lions may have to take a chance on a less polished player in the mid rounds that has more upside.


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