Detroit Lions: Cornerback improvement key to 2020 success

Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions’ new cornerbacks must perform better than their predecessors

In 2019, no NFL team surrendered more yards through the air than the Detroit Lions. They’re hoping that a remodeled cornerback unit can help lift their passing defense out of the mud this fall.

Alongside returning veteran slot cornerback Justin Coleman, the Lions are banking on a pair of newcomers to help prevent a repeat performance of last season, when they were too often at the mercy of opposing passing attacks. These personnel decisions come with substantial risks, however.

In March, the Lions traded longtime starter and former All-Pro corner Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles, after a very public contract impasse combined with a personality conflict with head coach Matt Patricia. Stripping a team desperate for competent cornerback play of its best playmaker might seem like poor judgment, but there was no repairing this fractured relationship.

Additionally, the Lions showed no interest in re-signing Slay’s counterpart from last season in veteran Rashaan Melvin, who quietly signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in April. Melvin seemed like a good fit in Detroit at the time of his signing last year; he had played for Patricia previously in 2015 when both were with the New England Patriots.

After a solid start to the year, Melvin fizzled out, unable to keep up with shiftier and speedier receivers and failing to make any game-changing plays for a team in desperate need of them. In 13 games last season, including 12 starts, Melvin recorded no interceptions and was frequently on the wrong end of big plays by the end of the year.

In their place, the Lions are projected to start highly-touted third overall draft selection Jeff Okudah, alongside veteran free-agent signee Desmond Trufant. Okudah was almost universally acclaimed as the best cornerback in this year’s draft, and the Lions will have sky-high expectations for him right from the start.

Cornerbacks often struggle as rookies, but the Lions cannot afford Okudah’s learning curve to be too steep this year, even as the ongoing global health crisis limits his preseason preparation.

Trufant, to his credit, snagged four picks last year for the Atlanta Falcons, despite missing seven games. He has never been regarded as one of the league’s top corners, but he will likely need to produce one of his best seasons for the Lions to make much-needed gains on defense.

Second-year man Amani Oruwariye has the upper hand on the top outside backup position, and he showed glimmers of strong play in 2019 despite playing only 19% of the Lions’ defensive snaps. His role figures to increase significantly, and he will be heavily relied upon should an injury occur, or should the aforementioned health situation complicate roster configurations.

With questions still surrounding their pass rush, the Lions’ play on the back end will be a major barometer for their fortunes this season. Expect Okudah to be tested early and often as opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators will show no mercy in seeing if he can hang with some of the game’s best receivers.

In the Lions’ man-coverage-heavy defensive scheme, Trufant will also have his hands full in the early portion of the season. If the Lions decide to shadow Okudah on opposing number two wideouts to ease the rookie’s transition, Trufant could be staring at early matchups with Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers, DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals and Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints. Woof.

Regardless of their opponents, simply put, the Lions’ entire cornerback unit must be markedly better than the players who comprised the group last year. If they can’t rise to the challenge, the Lions will have little to no chance of competing in 2020.

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Do you think that the Lions’ cornerbacks will perform better in 2020 than they did last season? Let us know in the comments section below.