Detroit Lions, NFC North positional preview: Cornerback

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 28: Justin Coleman #28 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates his interception against the Detroit Lions during the fourth quarter at Ford Field on October 28, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 28: Justin Coleman #28 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates his interception against the Detroit Lions during the fourth quarter at Ford Field on October 28, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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Darius Slay, Detroit Lions
(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

Leading up to NFL training camps, SideLion Report will preview each position group for the Detroit Lions, and compare it with the same unit from the rest of the NFC North. Today, we look at cornerbacks.

Few divisions in the NFL will boast the kind of dangerous aerial attacks that the NFC North will flaunt in 2019. As such, the Detroit Lions and their divisional counterparts will need high level performances from their cornerbacks to disrupt opposing passing games and compete at a high level this season.

At cornerback, each team in the division has a solid mix of proven veterans, and talented young players who will be aiming for bigger roles at the position this year. There are also a series of intriguing positional battles that could emerge in training camps, as well as a notable contractual conflict worth tracking.

Coverage is obviously a critical element in today’s NFL, and cornerback is one of the toughest positions to master, particularly for younger players. Here, we examine the outlooks for each NFC North team’s cornerback unit, starting with the Lions:

Detroit Lions

Key returning players: Darius Slay, Jamal Agnew, Teez Tabor, Mike Ford

New additions: Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Amani Oruwariye (Rookie)

Key losses: Nevin Lawson, DeShawn Shead

Darius Slay has evolved into one of the best, most respected corners in the game since being drafted in the second round by the Lions in 2013. He has turned into quite a ballhawk too, picking off 11 passes over the last two years. He’s the main man for the Lions on the back end, but he is underpaid by NFL standards at his position. He let the Lions know how he felt by eschewing Organized Team Activities this spring.

Despite his alleged contract squabble which kept him away from the Lions’ spring workouts, the Lions’ likely anticipate having the two-time Pro Bowler ready for their Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. They’d better hope he is, because there are some question marks behind him in the cornerback room.

Justin Coleman, who played for Lions head coach Matt Patricia with the New England Patriots from 2015-2016, was signed quickly in free agency from the Seattle Seahawks. He is a highly effective slot corner, the position he was acquired to primarily occupy. He could turn out to be one of the shrewdest offseason acquisitions in the division. Could he see snaps on the outside as well if others struggle there?

Jamal Agnew, who missed ten games in his sophomore season due to a knee injury, remains an option in the defensive backfield, particularly in nickel and dime packages. However, his strongest contribution will likely remain on special teams. The Lions would love for him to return to his rookie form, when he housed two punts. Any advancements as a cornerback would be a nice bonus.

Veteran Rashaan Melvin, yes, another former Patriot, offers nice size on the outside, and will likely be a favorite to start opposite Slay when the season starts. Melvin’s best year came in 2017 with the Indianapolis Colts, when he recorded three interceptions and yielded an impressive 77.9 overall mark from Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) advanced grading system. Could he return to that level under Patricia, his former defensive coordinator in New England?

Melvin was essentially swapped for veteran Nevin Lawson, who joined Melvin’s old team, the Oakland Raiders, after being released by Detroit in March. After Lawson failed to record an interception in five years with the Lions, it was time to move on.

Teez Tabor will likely need a monster training camp to make the roster in 2019 after two rough seasons to start his career. Deep speed is his biggest drawback, and he will face competition from youngsters such as Mike Ford, who appeared in seven games for the Lions last year, and rookie Amani Oruwariye.

Oruwairye surprisingly slipped to the fifth round in this year’s draft, and could end up being a steal for Detroit. Any major contributions from him this year are unlikely though, as the Lions could be hesitant to throw him into the fire immediately, save for a player ahead of him on the depth chart suffering an injury.

The Lions have struggled to find a consistent partner for Slay in recent years, and they made a concerted effort to fix that this offseason. It won’t matter however, if their star defender isn’t on the field in September, though that seems like an implausible, worst case scenario.