Rashean Mathis was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Detroit Lions over the past three seasons. Despite being ancient by NFL standards, Mathis essentially locked down his side of the field while providing leadership among the Lions’ young secondary.
But after 13 years in the NFL and a debilitating concussion, Mathis’ football career is over, leaving the Lions with a giant hole in their roster. Nevin Lawson stepped in for Mathis last year, but with the return of a healthy Alex Carter and a few free agent additions, the No. 2 cornerback position is up for grabs in 2016. Let’s look at the contenders.
The case for Nevin Lawson
The Lions relied on Lawson last year and whether he succeeded in the role depends on who you ask. Pro Football Focus gave Lawson a below-average grade (39.5) for his nine starts last year. Football Outsiders, on the other hand, credited Lawson with allowing the seventh-fewest adjusted yards per target last year, only bested by names like Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman and Adam "Pacman" Jones. Our own Andrew Kato was a pretty big fan on his coverage skills, but not his run defense.
To tell the truth, Lawson’s play probably fell somewhere in the middle of those opinions. He was overaggressive at times, drawing a total of seven flags last year. However, his play occasionally stood out, like when he visibly frustrated Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams.
Last year, Lawson proved he could fill in and succeed as a replacement, but can he do it as a full-time starter?
The case for Alex Carter
It’s really impossible to build a full-fledged case for Carter as the starting No. 2 cornerback, because no one knows what the Lions have in the second-year corner. Carter spent his entire rookie year on the injured reserve list after suffering an injury during training camp.
Carter has talent — otherwise the Lions wouldn’t have spent a third-round pick on him. He’s a physical player that has the kind of size that many defensive coordinators are seeking. But at this point his talent remains hypothetical. It may be risky to thrust a player with only potential into a starting role.
The case for Darrin Walls
Forgotten in this group is free agent acquisition Darrin Walls. Walls was signed to a one-year deal this season after spending the last four season with the Jets. Walls’ best season came in 2014, when he started 12 games for New York, racking up 12 passes defended and two interceptions.
Walls, relatively speaking, is the veteran of the group. His experience gives him a leg up on nearly everyone else at the cornerback position. However, Walls has described as "not a starting corner" and was one of the worst starting corners in 2014 according to Football Outsiders. Walls has the experience, but not all experience is necessarily good experience.
Who has the advantage going into training camp?
Right now, Lawson is the de facto leader of the pack here, as his play was good enough last year to warrant serious consideration for the 2016 job. However, Carter will finally have his opportunity to prove his worth over the next few weeks and could certainly take over the job. The long-shot candidate is Walls, who is just as likely to get cut as he is to win a starting position.