The Detroit Lions’ cornerback position is loaded with potential, and extremely inexpensive compared to the rest of the league. Until Slay signs the extension he has told the team he would like to work out, the team has its top four corners on rookie contracts going in to free agency. Slay is a budding pro bowler, and is about to get paid like one if he has his way. Nevin Lawson showed that he is able to play on the outside, but also that it may be a better idea to keep that as his second option during the second half of last season; the turnaround of the Lions 2015 season may not have been possible if he hadn’t taken a huge step forward from his 2014 performance as a solid inside corner. Quandre Diggs stepped up as a nickle corner, showing that height is not everything, but at 5’9″ it is not likely that he has a future on the outside. Alex Carter is still a complete unknown, not really having made any significant mark as a rookie in 2015.
What the Lions need is a starting outside corner, preferably one that isn’t going to be looking for an extremely long and expensive deal. The Lions can not afford to pay two elite corners for a long time. That typically means that they shouldn’t be shopping on opening day, and should be looking for guys that are at or nearing 30 years old. They don’t want to be in a situation where the guy they signed costs them a younger, cheaper player two years from now because they’re unable to get relief from cutting him after a massive signing bonus gets accelerated. That means they’re looking for someone similar to Rashean Mathis three years ago, someone with some gas left in the tank, without getting something like Rashean Mathis last year, when he was clearly not the same guy. When looking at cornerbacks, you also have to look at the scheme they’re coming from and the scheme that the Lions run. Otherwise you end up with the abysmal signing of Altaraun Verner to play in the Tampa Bay defense. What the Lions do most is play man to man coverage, with the individual match ups determining whether the corners are on the line or off. They do also play zone, all teams play a mixture of both, but their base defense is predicated on blitzing, and man coverage – at least it is when it’s succeeding. So with all that in mind, here is a look at the players I think are the best fits for the Lions at the cornerback position:
#1 Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
Get past Pacman in a strip club making it rain and then wanting the money back before his security guy shot a bouncer. It’s been long enough that I think we can say he is one of the few that went from being an idiotic kid with too much money, to a man who understands what it is to need redemption. He has said that his primary goal with his next team is to win, and that’s exactly what I want to hear from a 32-year-old free agent coming to my team. At that age he’s probably not a day one signing, and if the Lions can get off to a quick start, grabbing say George Iloka, also a Bengals player last season, Jones might see the Lions as a viable option. His skill set is that of a cornerback who can play inside or outside, and he is one of the top return men in the NFL. That versatility and urgency to win make him the Lions’ best option at corner in free agency.
#2 Shareece Wright, Baltimore Ravens
He gets a bump in my ranking due to price tag. At 28 years old he may want a longer deal than some of the other guys on this list, but the per year number is also likely to be lower, making him a possible longer term fixture than the older guys. He was cut last year by the 49’ers, but I don’t hold that against him, their front office has been making mistakes for years, and he thrived in the Ravens defense upon which the Lions scheme is primarily based. He isn’t the tall, big corner that Mayhew loved so much, but he’s got ability, which I hope is the more important factor to Quinn and co. He’s not being brought in to model, he’s being brought in to cover people, and he showed ability to do that last year.
#3 Jerraud Powers, Arizona Cardinals
Part of the extremely dangerous Arizona secondary, Powers was the guy across from Peterson most of the time, while the other pieces shifted around confusing offenses. He is also not the biggest guy around, but he has shown that he can play virtually any coverage, and is adept at working with the safety to effectively bracket a receiver, a vastly underrated skill in the modern NFL, and unfortunately one he needs with bigger receivers. Despite not being the biggest guy, he has been solid against the run, and shown an ability to come up. He’s a better, but more expensive player than Wright will be in all likelihood, but has a bigger sample size. At 28 he is a more projectable long term investment than Wright is, but the price tag puts him below Wright on this list.
#4 Leon Hall, Cincinatti Bengals
Hall was once one of the best corners in the NFL, but the league is not kind to elder players at this position. At his age, he is not going to get paid like he is accustomed, which could lead to a delay in his signing. The Lions need to take advantage of the situation if Hall prices himself out of his market early in free agency. He had some nagging injuries last season, so care should be taken from a medical standpoint, and a long term deal to a 31-year-old seems like something best avoided. If he’s got enough left in the tank and the Bengals go in another direction, Hall could be a valuable short term addition to the Lions’ secondary while they wait for a draft pick to develop.
#5 Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo Bills
He’s not on a bunch of lists, because he wasn’t a free agent until a couple days ago. McKelvin had a sizable price tag for a cap-crunched Buffalo team, and missed a lot of time in the last two seasons. He brings both coverage and return ability, but has found himself on the outside looking in as the team tries to find ways to improve. 30-year-old guys coming off injuries don’t have a lot of job security in the NFL, as we Lions fans have come to see this off-season. Rex Ryan’s pet cornerback Antonio Cromartie has found himself out of work again, and it may be that Ryan decides that if he’s going to rely on an aging corner, he wants the one that has played well for him before.
Essentially in my opinion the Lions do not need anyone in free agency that doesn’t come in and start immediately and if anything, being young is something to be held against free agents. Veteran and hungry, these are the keys to an improved Lions secondary. As always you can track me down on Reddit at /u/a5hcrack, and twitter @a5hcrack. I can usually be found spouting my opinion whether it’s wanted or not.