Nevin Lawson was the Detroit Lions invisible man for four seasons.
I have been saying for years that Nevin Lawson was a player that was holding the Detroit Lions back. I have stated repeatedly that he was one of the players I call progress indicators. When the Lions had someone better than Lawson manning the number two corner spot, it would indicate that Bob Quinn was making legitimate roster progress, as opposed to moving furniture around. Lawson was not a stud on the outside for the Lions at the cornerback spot. Nobody is going to say that. His zero interceptions over his time in the NFL make that an indefensible argument. Nevin Lawson is almost always invisible on the stat sheet. Still, he brought something important to the table in his time in Detroit.
The first, and most important, thing a cornerback does is stop the quarterback from throwing at his man, or into his zone. Lawson was in the right place to make a quarterback decide to go elsewhere with the ball far more often than not over his first five seasons in the NFL. There have always been more tempting targets in the Lions back seven for teams to go after. That generally meant that just by being competently “in the way” Nevin Lawson took the opposition’s second-best outside receiver effectively out of the game.
How Lawson Helped the Detroit Lions
Just as there are not a lot of highlights with Lawson making a play on the ball, there are not a lot of highlights from opposition receivers where Lawson is chasing them into the end zone. This is the reason that sites like PFF have at times flirted with loving the Lions default CB2. There were plays here and there where Lawson was not able to perform this task. Even then he would take a defensive holding penalty or pass interference rather than just give up the big play.
It is a difficult hurdle to jump, seeing a penalty as a positive, but other corners just give up big plays. Lawson diagnosed the situation and realized a five-yard defensive holding penalty is better than a fifteen-yard completion. He realized that a pass interference penalty that takes the opposition to the one-yard line was better than a touchdown. Sure, not getting beat is better, but every corner gets beat. Darius Slay gave up six touchdowns last year. That’s Lawson’s total for the last two years. Lawson’s career pass break up total of 15 is only three more than Slay’s 12 in 2018. Slay is also tasked with covering the opposition’s best receiver. I am not trying to imply that Lawson is anywhere near Slay’s level. All I am saying is that Nevin Lawson was never the problem with the Lions defense.
Goodbye Mr. Lawson
Lawson serves a purpose for a defense. The Lions would be better off right now to have him on the roster than to have the still unused salary cap space they gained in cutting him. Justin Coleman is a more impactful player than Nevin Lawson, and will likely slide into the number two corner spot. After signing a $9 million per season contract with the Lions, Coleman is not going to play only the approximately 60% of snaps in which the Lions utilized three corners last year. They played a great number of three safety nickel snaps and that will continue barring a drastic paradigm shift.
Lawson is a much better player than the Lions have available as their number three corner. The number three corner is a guy that a team should want to have Lawson’s exact skill set. Particularly if the more impactful and dangerous Coleman is the number two: they should want the CB3 to be invisible.