Ever since I have been following the Lions, there has been a consistent trend that the secondary was a weak unit. This was particularly evident in the Mayhew/Schwartz era. It is not that we lacked talent there, though. Our players just were not in a system that supported the secondary well.
If we observe the previous Lions staff, there was a glaring reason why the secondary was always lacking: Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham did not play and develop young cornerbacks. It is only in dire situations that they were willing to make the switch and gain their players some experience.
One player in particular, Chris Greenwood, shows just how dismal the Lions were at developing cornerbacks. Greenwood was a young player out of Albion drafted in the 5th round of the 2012 draft. At 6’1 and a 4.34 40 yard dash, Greenwood was the prototypical player with the skills to play the position. It was frequently commented on that he had great instincts as well. Due to injury his first year, he was unable to contribute, but that did not stop him from doing his own work, mostly mental reps. Yet the Lions were unable to get anything out of him in 2013. Why? Because the coaches were afraid to use a young player and have him learn by fire.
Around midseason, Greenwood had a stint with the Dallas Cowboys where they were enamored by the same things that the Lions were drawn to but with one key difference. While Greenwood never played in a game for the Cowboys, they were actively coaching him, something that they said Greenwood took to readily.
Interestingly, Greenwood was dropped by the Cowboys three weeks later at which point the Lions promptly picked him up. Only a couple games later, after a slew of injuries in the secondary, Greenwood was on the field. In the three games that he played, Greenwood proved to be one of the most consistent tacklers in the secondary. Coaching, surprisingly, took this player seemingly destined to the practice squad to a successful stint on the field.
Obviously Greenwood is only one player, but there are other young talents in the secondary as well. Darius Slay, for instance, showed evidence at the end of the 2013 season that he was the defensive playmaker that Mayhew thought he could be when drafted. Yet throughout the season, rather than attempting to teach Slay, Schwartz would bench him after mistakes. As a result, Slay was unable to truly learn from his mistakes but for the guidance of fellow corner and mentor Rashean Mathis.
Bill Bentley, another young talent from the 2012 draft, is considered the strongest nickel corner in the NFC North. Despite his occasional injuries, Bentley has shown aggression in the run game, a willingness to tackle, and a daring necessary to play in the middle.
Jonte Green, the final developmental corner, was taken in the 6th round of the 2012 draft. During the 2012 season, Green was able to hold a spot as replacement starting corner, showing progression throughout the season. Despite his ability and proven record as someone who can play when needed, Green was demoted to only special teams duties.
In such an inexperienced secondary, is another young player really the answer? Obviously, many fans would think yes, but that ignores the talent already on the team as well as one particular trend. Cornerbacks notoriously struggle when entering the league. One of the more difficult positions on the field, players need time to adjust. So perhaps, rather than drafting another player, the Lions should let their young corners adjust. If anything, they can bring in veteran help.
Obviously, then, people will argue that the Lions should target a wide receiver in the first round, yet there is plenty of talent at wide receiver throughout the draft. As a result, the Lions should draft someone drastically above everyone else in their position this year.
Now, that does not mean that the Lions should not draft a player for the secondary with the 10th pick overall. Notably, part of the weaknesses of the Lions has been completely depending on Louis Delmas, an incredibly high risk player. Delmas is both injury-prone and reckless, leading to him either letting up big plays or taking himself (or teammates) out of the game. This year there would be an adequate replacement for Delmas in Hasean Clinton-Dix, a sound tackler with great instincts and ball-skills.
The other option, Eric Ebron, I feel many fans would be confused by. Ebron is a big-bodied receiving tight end who has shown an aptitude for blocking. If the Lions do not retain Brandon Pettigrew, then Ebron is another great option and potential upgrade. The tandem of Ebron and Fauria with Calvin Johnson would be nearly unstoppable in its own right.
Whether it is a safety, tight end or even a cornerback, this Lions team is talented, and picking the right one or two pieces in the 2014 draft could be the difference maker in pushing this squad over the edge.