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Lions offseason needs: Safety quietly a long-term issue for Detroit

In 2014, the Detroit Lions had Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley under contract. In 2015, they had neither. They face a similar problem going into the 2017 season at safety.

Los Angeles Rams v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Coming into the 2016 offseason, the Detroit Lions needed their staples that they always need. They needed offensive line, cornerbacks, and pass rushers. One thing they desperately needed given their lineup was a safety. The team made a few moves that were largely looked upon as minimal stop gaps, signing injury prone part timer Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson, who had fallen out of favor in New England. The team also drafted a small school, raw prospect in Miles Killebrew out of Southern Utah. Later they would extend special teams ace Don Carey as well. Ultimately this had the effect of setting up the position with depth, but questionable starting ability through 2016 and into 2017.

Under Contract 2017: Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Don Carey, Miles Killebrew

Pending Free Agents: Rafael Bush

The only player who is likely gone is Rafael Bush. You could probably lump in futures player Charles Washington here as he split time between safety and corner in training camp, but as he’s listed as a “DB” I kept him with corners for now. A player listed as a “Defensive Back” is generally neither a corner nor a safety, rather than both. Tavon Wilson was a pleasant surprise in 2016, though in much the same way James Ihedigbo was in years prior. He had a string of very good games and also long stretches where it seemed every play he was involved in was a bad play. At his best playing near the line of scrimmage, Wilson took over for Rafael Bush quickly in the season and never lost the starting job. 2017 is unlikely to be as lucky for him in terms of opportunity, with Miles Killebrew steadily increasing in workload as the season progressed.

Free Agents Available

Eric Berry, Matt Elam, John Cyprien

Unlike the cornerback class, the safety free agent group is a pretty bare cupboard. The only huge name is Eric Berry, and the chances he either leaves Kansas City or signs a non record-breaking contract is next to nothing. Former first rounders Matt Elam and John Cyprien are possible reclamation targets. Even the depth of this class is fairly poor, with most of the notable names being over 30 or coming off major injuries. It’s not a position I would invest in with this free agent class, though it’s possible a surprise cut comes along due to cap reasons. More likely, this position is addressed in the draft.

Draft Targets

Desmond King, Marcus Maye, Justin Evans, Eddie Jackson

I should kick this off by pointing out that safety doesn’t appear to be an immediate need. I will immediately follow that up by pointing out that defensive tackle wasn’t an immediate need in 2014 either, and this is largely for the same reasons. Both Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson, the presumptive starters going into 2017, are in contract years. Even in a deep cornerback class, the team has to consider the possibility of drafting a successor at the safety position.

My first target to that end would be Iowa cornerback Desmond King. Converting a corner to safety is a reasonably common occurrence. Those of you who have followed me during this draft year know that I’m not particularly high on Desmond King as a corner. As a safety prospect, it’s a whole different ball game. Most of the plays that people remember from King came while he was playing deep, or while he was playing a zone that required him to drop deep. His range in those situations is incredible and his field vision is so much better when he has green in front of him.

Florida safety Marcus Maye has some very impressive tape and would likely be getting first-round hype if this class wasn’t so strong and he hadn’t suffered a broken arm to end his season. Justin Evans and Eddie Jackson are strong safeties, and consideration for those two would depend largely on what the plan is for Miles Killebrew. If it’s for a less traditional SS role, the team could consider a strong safety prospect to play those types of downs or in the oft ran big nickel.

Level of Need

The only safety the Lions are losing in 2017 is Rafael Bush. The only one that is for sure on the roster in 2018 is Miles Killebrew. With the roster as weak as it is from top to bottom, the Detroit Lions cannot afford to let talent slip away, even if the need isn’t present for 2017 by itself. This isn’t a position I’d run out to reach for a player, but I would understand a high draft pick at this position even with one-time Pro Bowler Glover Quin still onboard. If one of the top tier guys like Jamal Adams drops to the Lions, I’d not only sprint to the podium, I’d send everyone I have to make that pick. You may notice I don’t mention Jabrill Peppers here, and with good reason. Even if he fell to 21st overall, the Detroit Lions have already invested in Miles Killebrew who is far ahead in his development. Jabrill Peppers would be completely redundant in Detroit, whether the team retains Teryl Austin or not.

Previously covered needs:

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.