Who will take Mathis’ spot as starting corner?
By Matt Urben
A footnote to Detroit’s rather drastic off-season was Rashean Mathis’ retirement. The 35-year-old veteran corner has been a quality starter in the Lions’ secondary, over the past few seasons, playing opposite Darius Slay.
Few are talking about the hole Mathis’ retirement will create, but he’s been an underrated part of the team’s defense since he signed here. Not only was he a solid player, he provided veteran team leadership, helping a young Slay develop into the pro bowl caliber player he is today.
The Lions did not address their secondary in the draft, other than selecting safety Miles Killebrew in the fourth round. They didn’t sign any starting-caliber free agents, indicating they are happy with the group of young guys already on the roster.
Mathis wasn’t quite a ball hawk or game changer, but a quality starting corner is very valuable in today’s pass-heavy NFL. So all of this begs the question, who will start opposite Darius slay in the 2016 season?
The most likely answer is whoever plays best throughout training camp and preseason. The two most likely suspects to fill that role are third-year cornerback Nevin Lawson and second-year corner, Quandre Diggs.
Neither player is ideally suited to play on the outside, being that they are both rather undersized, each just 5-foot-9. Typically guys that size will play nickel corner, where their stature is less likely to get exposed. However, new general manager Bob Quinn said when he took over that he was comfortable with the guys they have on the roster to step up.
Seeing that the Lions did virtually nothing to upgrade the position this off-season, you have to believe they are anticipating either Diggs or Lawson will be able to play on the outside next season.
Diggs is undersized, but a very aggressive corner, who certainly will not back down from the challenge. Lawson has a similar skill set but has played well in the nickel spot, a very important role in Teryl Austin’s defense. Whoever gets the starting nod will be facing an uphill battle. Most starting wide receivers are six feet tall, at a minimum.
To put it in perspective, Calvin Johnson was 6-foot-5. Although his size wasn’t exactly the norm, he represents the kind of challenge Lawson or Diggs could be up against, starting on the outside. A trait both corners have going for them is fearlessness. Diggs and Lawson are each very physical, drawing their share of penalties last season for their heavy-contact style. It’s something they will both have to clean up, but when you are an undersized corner in this league, you have to be extra physical to slow down the bigger guys.
Another possible option is second-year corner Alex Carter, who missed the entire 2015 season due to injury. Carter doesn’t have the experience but is closer to the traditional size of an outside defensive back. He struggled in training camp when he was healthy, getting outplayed by Diggs consistently. Many think Carter doesn’t have the speed to play on the outside and believe his is better suited to move to one of the safety positions.
Coach Caldwell maintained when he was drafted that he envisions Carter as a corner, but without any game film, it is hard to know what to make of him yet. He could certainly surprise us but it’s hard to imagine he will jump over Diggs and Lawson on the depth chart, with virtually no NFL experience.
Mathis will not be easy to replace both on and off of the field. Darius Slay will have to step up and be the leader of this young group. Whoever ends up filling the role, whether it be Lawson or Diggs, neither is likely shy away from the challenge.