The Detroit Lions’ strong safety position. We’ve talked about it all offseason. We teased that it would be the hottest training camp battle. We debated whether the Lions would be improved at the position this year. Even Bob Quinn hyped the battle on a SiriusXM interview. "I think the battle — the play — next to Glover [Quin] is really an intriguing one," Quinn said. "Each one of the few guys really has stepped up over the course of OTAs and minicamp."
Quinn decided this offseason the position required an entire revamp. Detroit decided moved on from their two biggest strong safety contributors from 2015, James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus. Instead, Quinn looked to both free agency and the draft to round out the secondary. First, he added former Patriots safety Tavon Wilson, then days later the Lions snagged Rafael Bush from free agency. A little over a month later, the Lions used a fourth-round pick on another safety: Miles Killebrew from the small school of Southern Utah.
The offseason has set up an intense battle in the making, and there doesn’t appear to be a clear front-runner going into camp. So let’s make a case for each player.
The case for Rafael Bush
Bush is considered the player most likely to enter camp as the No. 1 strong safety candidate. He certainly comes with the most experience; Bush is entering his seventh season in the NFL and comes with 13 starts under his belt but just one career interception. Recently, injuries have held back his development. Bush entered 2015 as the Saints’ starting safety, but he tore his pectoral muscle in the season-opener and spent the rest of the year on IR.
Bush’s play has been up-and-down all his career. In 2013, Pro Football Focus credited Bush with just one missed tackle all year. After that impressive season, here’s what Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had to say about Bush (who he ranked as the 12th best safety for 2014):
Bush is a young safety who can be trusted to play single-high and is a reliable tackler on the back end. Despite not being aggressive in run defense, he covers ground and provides a last line of defense for the Saints.
But since then, Bush hasn’t really progressed as many thought he would. Injuries have been a part of that, and the Lions are hoping that Bush has moved past them and is ready to compete for a starting role again.
The case for Tavon Wilson
Another one of Bob Quinn’s signings from his former team, Wilson comes to the Lions having started just four games in four years with the Patriots. That may not be completely on Wilson, as he spent the entirety of his career buried beneath an impressive Patriots depth chart. Still, in his limited role in New England, Wilson managed five interceptions, 11 passes defended and even a defensive touchdown.
However, the Lions may not even truly have plans for Wilson in a starting role. In New England, Wilson was a standout special teams players. In 2014, he had the most special teams snaps of anyone on the Patriots roster. That extra value essentially solidifies his spot on the roster, but he is still very much a candidate to start alongside Quin.
The case for Miles Killebrew
As the highest draft pick in Southern Utah history, Killebrew has quite a reputation to uphold at the professional level. Killebrew gained notoriety with a highlight reel filled with huge hits and incredible closing speed.
Coming from an FCS college, Killebrew has a long road ahead of him adjusting to a huge step in talent and more complicated defensive schemes. By his own admission, Killebrew came from a very basic defense in college. "We had a great scheme, but it was very simple," Killebrew said in a SiriusXM interview. He knows that it is a big undertaking to learn Teryl Austin’s defense. "There’s just so many calls that I’m getting used to," Killebrew said.
Killebrew’s chances on winning the starting job rely on how quickly he can make that adjustment. The Lions know he has the talent — they’ve seen it on tape — now they need to see it at a professional level.
Who has the advantage going into training camp?
This is the toughest call, because each of the three candidates listed above brings something to the table that the others cannot lay claim to. Bush brings about the most experience, even if it hasn’t shined while on the field. Wilson brings familiarity with Bob Quinn and special teams skills, to boot. Killebrew may be the most talented of the group and is certainly the youngest, but his uphill battle catching up with the NFL may make starting him too risky of a proposition this year.
Given all of that, Bush probably has the edge going into camp. While not outstanding, he’s the least risky choice, and no other position values risk aversion like safety.