The Detroit Lions are facing a bit of a conundrum at cornerback this offseason. On paper, cornerback isn't really a pressing need given how many potential contributors they already have on their roster. In reality, though, the Lions need to be much better at cornerback going forward, which is why most mock drafts have them taking a corner in the first round.
So, is the best course of action for the Lions to take a cornerback with the 10th overall pick? Should they instead address this position in free agency? Let's take a look at the Lions' different options at cornerback this offseason.
Option 1: Stand pat and hope for the best
This is definitely the riskiest option for the Lions, but it's not like they're lacking bodies at cornerback. They have Chris Houston, Bill Bentley, Darius Slay and Jonte Green all under contract, and Chris Greenwood will be re-signed this offseason. If the Lions went into the 2014 season with this group of corners, I tend to think that they could at least survive, but this would be risky for two main reasons. For starters, we don't know if Houston will bounce back after a dreadful 2013 season, and we especially don't know if any of the Lions' young cornerbacks will finally take that next step and develop into a quality starter.
On the one hand, standing pat and letting Rashean Mathis walk after he was really the only consistently decent cornerback last season seems like a recipe for disaster. Then again, keep in mind that new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is an experienced defensive backs coach, so he could really help the guys already on the roster improve. Also keep in mind that at some point, you simply have to give the young guys a shot and let them either sink or swim.
The best-case scenario here would be for Houston to return to his 2012 form and for at least one of the young corners to develop into a reliable, starting-caliber player. The worst-case scenario would be that Houston's play from 2013 carries over to this year and all of the young corners continue to experience growing pains. The most realistic scenario seems to be that Houston won't be nearly as bad as last year and perhaps Slay or someone else will at least become a serviceable starter, but that doesn't exactly sound like a huge improvement over what the cornerbacks did last year.
Option 2: Add help via free agency
A much more attractive option for the Lions is to add a free agent to the group of cornerbacks already set to return next season. This could mean simply re-signing Mathis, who would bring some stability to the position and should be pretty affordable. Or this could mean targeting a top free agent like Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner or Vontae Davis. Getting a young cornerback with a proven track record of excellence is definitely the top option in theory, but those guys might be a bit out of the Lions' price range. Even so, there are several other intriguing cornerbacks out there, and the Lions should have enough cap space to make some kind of move at this position.
Option 3: Grab a cornerback early in the draft
Perhaps instead of opening their checkbook for a top cornerback or bringing in another stopgap veteran, the Lions will simply decide that this is the year to draft a cornerback in the first round. Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard are both intriguing options, and the Lions would definitely be making an upgrade in the talent department by drafting one of them.
Of course, the flip side of this is that the Lions would be adding yet another young player at a position where growing pains are extremely common. It could take much of the season or perhaps even the entire season for Gilbert or Dennard to really become a productive player. In the long term, adding one of them could work out quite well, but in the short term, you could have a similar situation to what Slay went through last year. He was in and out of the starting lineup before the Lions finally decided that their best chance of winning was with a veteran (Mathis) on the field and the rookie (Slay) on the bench. Considering the Lions want to win now, the prospect of their first-round pick being unproductive or not even contributing on defense for much of his rookie season is unnerving.
Option 4: Wait for a later pick to add another cornerback
Drafting a cornerback doesn't mean that the Lions have to use their first or even second pick on one. They could instead decide to go back to their strategy from the 2012 draft and use a mid-round or later pick on a cornerback. The chances of getting any real contributions from a cornerback taken later in the draft obviously seem even slimmer than a first-round corner, but at least you would have another player to develop at this position. Much like the third option, the short-term outlook wouldn't be all that positive, but the Lions would at least have a backup plan of sorts for the future if Bentley, Slay, Green and Greenwood all don't work out.
Option 5: A combination of the second and third options
If the Lions really want to make sure that they get better at cornerback this offseason, signing a free agent and using an early pick to address this position is the way to go. I can't imagine they would draft a cornerback in the first round if they sign a young, top-tier cornerback like Talib, Verner or Davis, but then again, if Gilbert is the best player available, I guess they could take him anyway. Having too much talent at cornerback would certainly be a nice problem to have, but chances are the Lions would have to part ways with and essentially give up on at least one or two of Bentley, Green and Greenwood in this scenario.
Option 6: A combination of the second and fourth options
If the Lions add help via free agency and still decide that they want to draft a cornerback, waiting until a later round would seemingly make more sense. That way, there wouldn't be a logjam at the top of the depth chart, and perhaps they could even put their pick on the practice squad if he's taken late enough in the draft. This is definitely a long-term type of strategy, but in the short term the Lions could potentially hang on to all of the young cornerbacks already on the roster and really give them a fair shot in 2014.
Which option makes the most sense for the Lions?
Standing pat after what we witnessed at cornerback last year is a losing strategy, so let's cross that off right now. Banking on Houston returning to form and a bunch of young, unproven cornerbacks is just a bad idea for a team trying to win now. It also doesn't seem like a good idea to bank on a rookie cornerback to really help this position, regardless of if you add him in the first round or later in the draft. You can't draft only with the short term in mind, but Martin Mayhew doesn't really have the luxury of waiting a couple seasons for this year's first-round pick to develop into a productive player.
With all of that in mind, I keep going back to free agency for how the Lions should primarily improve the cornerback position. Rather than take a chance on a rookie or gamble with what they already have, I want to see them go out and sign a cornerback with a proven track record. And in all honesty, I want to see them sign someone young rather than another veteran. Yes, the salary cap might make that difficult, but signing someone who could be a legitimate No. 1 cornerback for years to come is the best plan of attack in my mind. And at the very least, signing someone who won't take a year or two to become productive beats the draft-related options.
It might sound like I'm going with Option 2, but I actually think Option 6 makes the most sense for the 2014 Lions. Adding help via free agency is a must, but I don't think the Lions should completely ignore the draft. Yes, they already have several young cornerbacks, but I wouldn't have a problem with the Lions drafting another one in a later round. A free agent would help solidify the starting lineup, and a non-first-round pick would add additional depth and another player for the new coaching staff to develop. Option 6 is the best of both worlds, and it doesn't risk sacrificing the now for the future.