The cornerback position was a problem for the Detroit Lions during most of the Jim Schwartz era. The problems at cornerback have been varied but they have very little to do with personnel, at this point, and a lot more to do with the philosophy that the coaches use to develop players. Let's start by looking at the current cornerback situation for the Lions.
Chris Houston, Jonte Green, Bill Bentley, and Darius Slay are all under contract for 2014. The only CB that is currently on the roster, but not under contract, is Chris Greenwood who is an exclusive rights free agent. The only cornerback that is eligible for the practice squad is also Chris Greenwood. All of the other CBs have more than six games on the active roster. While Greenwood could be put back on the practice squad the Lions have lost him from there once already. The Cowboys signed Greenwood from the practice squad during the 2013 season and I doubt the Lions will risk him there again. So I suspect he will make the 53 man roster next season. He played relatively well in his limited playing time toward the end of the season and that should give the coaches some confidence in his ability to play in the NFL.
So the Lions already have five CBs in the fold. Since most teams carry five or six CBs on the roster there may not even be a roster spot available for another CB. Even if the Lions choose to carry a sixth CB then it should not be another rookie.
There are already four young CBs that are being developed. It takes from three to five seasons for a cornerback to typically reach their full potential. The more snaps you give them to develop, the faster they become competent starters. It typically takes around 1500 snaps for a CB to settle in as a competent starter. If you give them a lot of snaps early then you may be able to cut that down to about 1000 snaps. If you meter out the snaps slowly then it will take longer to develop the requisite skills.
Patrick Peterson got 1048 defensive snaps in 2012 and that was a large contributor to his quick development into a reliable cornerback in 2013. Morris Claiborne got only 506 snaps for the Cowboys in 2013 and that will delay his development into a starter for 2014. Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick got the starter snaps and both had over 1000 snaps. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb have emerged as starting CBs in Baltimore due to the large number of snaps they have gotten to develop. The Seahawks made a commitment to start Richard Sherman in all 16 games of 2011 (his rookie year). Sherman has rewarded them by becoming an All-Pro in 2012 and 2013 and is currently considered to be the only effective shutdown corner in the NFL. I can state case after case of situations where CBs who get a lot of snaps early will develop faster into starters and impact players.
The current snap counts for our young CBs show that they are getting their snaps slowly. The Lions have used veteran players to hold down the starting positions rather than taking their lumps with the young players and developing them quickly. We have seen guys like Jacob Lacey, Drayton Florence, Ron Bartell, and Rashean Mathis all come in and take snaps away from the young developing corners. Given the slow pace of development we can assume that our CBs will need closer to 1500 snaps to develop rather than getting it done in 1000 snaps by the coaches making a commitment to their development.
Here are the current snap counts for our young CBs:
- Bill Bentley - 644 snaps over two seasons (needs 856 more snaps)
- Jonte Green - 559 snaps over two seasons (needs 941 more snaps)
- Darius Slay - 339 snaps in one season (needs 1161 more snaps)
- Chris Greenwood - 64 snaps in one season (needs 1436 more snaps)
If you add all that up you are looking at between 2400 and 4400 more snaps being required to develop our existing CBs. An NFL team typically has about 1000 defensive snaps in a season. Chris Houston will take pretty much every snap that he is healthy enough to play. That leaves the other outside cornerback position and the nickel corner spot to fill. Since most NFL teams play nickel about half the time you are looking at about 1500 snaps that are available for the four developing CBs.
That means the Lions can possibly develop two competent CBs next season but only if they make a serious commitment to give them the required snaps. It is sensible to give the largest share of the snaps to Bentley and Slay since they are the guys that the Lions invested the most into by spending early draft picks on them. The assumption would be that a higher draft pick would have more of a chance to develop quickly because they are more skilled from the start.
The very last thing we need to do is spend yet another early draft pick on a cornerback and spread the development snaps even thinner. All you would accomplish is to tie up even more draft resources into a long term payback without seriously improving the secondary. There has not been a cornerback drafted in recent memory that was a major impact on the defense in their first season. Cornerbacks need time to develop and that is just the way it is. You will not fix the secondary quickly by drafting another rookie. All impatience accomplishes is wasting more resources.
Some of you may recall that I made this same argument last season. Instead of committing the resources to development the decision was made to bring in Rashean Mathis. I can understand that since the coaching staff was on the hot seat. They were trying to save their jobs. In the end they lost their jobs anyway and the cornerbacks are still in need of development. Little real progress was made.
The new coaching staff will have a bit of a grace period, but not very long. It is imperative that they start the young cornerbacks on a development path to bring them along as quickly as possible. A serious commitment to development in the first season of the new coaching staff will pay big dividends down the road when they really need to win.
Look at the example of Pete Carroll in Seattle. He spent resources very early on positions that take the longest to develop. By investing into Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner early he was able to develop an excellent secondary before his job was on the line. The same philosophy would generally be true of linebackers and offensive linemen as well. They often take a couple seasons to develop as well.
If the Lions wish to add another cornerback it should be a veteran free agent. They only have two approaches here. They either go out and get a solid starter to play opposite Chris Houston or they get a guy that can fill in for injuries without needing much playing time to learn the defense.
If the Lions sign a free agent starter they they choose to continue the slow but steady development of the rookies. In this case it will probably take at least two more full seasons for our young corners to become reliable and probably at least three seasons to see their full potential.
If the Lions choose to sign a bench veteran that fills in for injuries then the young players will develop faster and they could potentially get two starters within the next season. To me this is the more sensible approach over the long term. Unfortunately, it may also be ignored because of the "win now" edict that the front office will place on the new coach.
While the Lions may choose to add another cornerback to the roster I strongly believe that it needs to be a veteran backup to stabilize the position from injury and that the Lions should not spend early draft resources at the CB position. taking a young cornerback in late rounds is fine because you can stash them on the practice squad. Because of this stance I will not be presenting cornerbacks as desired options in my draft analysis. Of course, if Martin Mayhew believes that a cornerback is the best player available when the Lions pick then all bets are off, because Mayhew has proven that he will stick to the BPA approach on draft day.