clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Detroit Lions defensive backfield has improved through retention and development

The Lions only added a couple pieces to one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, but is it enough?

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions defense in 2016 was so bad they had to not only change defensive schemes early in the year but they had to change offensive schemes to help hide their putrid defensive play. Part of their troubles were due to injuries, but a talentless pass rush, non-existant linebacking corps, and questionable secondary were all to blame in different ways. While the Lions were set at one cornerback position with Darius Slay, the remaining four secondary starters left much to be desired. That’s including Glover Quin, who is a reliable player but hasn’t played up to his Pro Bowl capabilities since he last went. Like the defensive line, the Lions did very little to improve this unit. Unlike the defensive line, the team spent at least some draft capital, if questionable in their picks, and has more talent to work with.

2016 Training Camp squad:

Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Alex Carter, Johnson Bademosi, Darrin Walls, Crezdon Butler, Keith Lewis, Adairius Barnes, Ian Wells, Charles Washington, Glover Quin, Rafael Bush, Tavon Wilson, Miles Killebrew, Don Carey, Isaiah Johnson


Asa Jackson, Johnthan Banks

The Lions entered 2016 with a largely unreliable group outside of star corner Darius Slay and Pro Bowler Glover Quin. Free agent acquisitions Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson were non-starters for their respective teams with Bush pencilled in as the Lions starting SS despite having started only one game in 2015 and 14 in his career. Nevin Lawson, who was disappointing in his 9 starts in 2015, was battling with others like Darrin Walls and Alex Carter or career special teamer and converted safety Johnson Bademosi for the starting job opposite Slay. Quandre Diggs, somewhat ironically in hindsight, was expected to be a bright spot at nickel after a promising rookie campaign. The depth after that was poor, however, and there wasn’t a reliable player the team could count on in a pinch should any injuries occur. Miles Killebrew was an exciting rookie, but his raw tape out of Southern Utah pointed to a steep learning curve.

Ultimately, Nevin Lawson would play surprisingly well while Quandre Diggs was one of the softest targets in the NFL prior to his injury. Johnson Bademosi was pretty bad when called upon to play defense. Rafael Bush didn’t last as a starter but played well when he was asked to play in a reserve role and didn’t have to cover anyone for long. Tavon Wilson split time being awful and awesome in a versatile strong safety role and is expected to hold onto the starter role to begin 2017. Once injuries started to hit, in season acquisitions of Johnthan Banks and Asa Jackson were ineffective and disastrous respectively. What started out as a poor group full of question marks became an almost respectable squad despite their historically terrible pass defense that required scheming to cover up.

2017 Pre-Training Camp Squad:

Returning: Slay, Lawson, Bademosi, Diggs, Barnes, Carter, Washington, Quin, Wilson, Killebrew, Carey

New: Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, D.J. Hayden, Desmond Lawrence, Josh Thornton, Rolan Milligan

Nearly the entire group returns, including all five starting secondary players from 2016. The good news is that the team has significantly more depth than last season and the players they do have showed enough promise last season despite their struggles as a unit to put a bit more faith in their development. Nevin Lawson played admirably even as the defense looked awful most of the year. In fact, he played well enough that it would be tough for anyone to wrest that starting job away from him. Quandre Diggs has been relegated to dimeback, at best, with the signing of D.J. Hayden and is a long shot to even make the roster after surrendering more than 90 percent of passes his way to be completed for more than 11 yards a catch (per PFF). D.J. Hayden was a terrible outside corner for the Raiders, but a superior slot man than anyone presently rostered on the Lions despite his pretty horrid penalty numbers. Surprise 53-man roster corner and 2016 UDFA Adairius Barnes returns with a couple others to try and take control of what is likely to be a sixth cornerback spot, as their chances of making the team if the Lions roster less than that are next to nothing.

Guesswork final 53:

CB: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, D.J. Hayden, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Johnson Bademosi

FS/SS: Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Don Carey, Miles Killebrew, Alex Carter

Slay and Lawson return on the outside with Hayden shoring up the slot position. 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor will start as the team’s dimeback but may find himself worked into the rotation by mid season. Jamal Agnew makes the team as a returner, but provides some slot depth and might even overtake Hayden if the former first rounder succumbs to injuries once again. Johnson Bademosi returns for his special teams abilities, and since he’s no longer going to be looked upon to provide meaningful defensive snaps that is more than sufficient.

The starting duo of Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson both return, but I think this might play out similarly to how Bush and Wilson did in 2016. Wilson comes in as the de facto starter, but 2016 mid rounder Miles Killebrew showed enough promise in his rookie campaign to take over that spot at some point. Considering how far ahead he was of expectations last season, that one could happen sooner than most are projecting. I kept Alex Carter for the last spot, with Don Carey keeping his usual ST role, since I feel his shift to safety has been a long time coming and provides more benefit to the team than keeping another nickelback like Diggs or going heavier on a less talented defensive line. Carter has been disappointing, but the comparisons to Glover Quin are not unwarranted. Carter isn’t as good of a player as Quin was when he moved to safety from corner, but he’s younger (still one of the youngest on the team in fact) and more athletic.

Did the unit improve?

The 2016 group had one starting corner and one starting safety coming into training camp and it finished the season only marginally better than that. That Adairius Barnes made the team last year and was a roster shrug after that shows just how thin the team was at the cornerback position, and the team comes into the year with a second-round pick in that same spot, highlighting the current depth over the previous season. The safety group has no roster battle between two unproven starters-in-name-only, but an established strong safety who is going to be fighting back a fast-developing second-year player for snaps early on. Even though the team didn’t add any flashy pieces, and even if you consider the pieces they did add to be questionable, this unit looks far better off than it did coming into the season. With the state of the pass rush, much is going to be asked of this group to step up and take away some footballs.


Has the Lions secondary improved?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Almost everywhere, could be top 5 unit!
    (156 votes)
  • 75%
    Maybe a bit, but mostly the same players
    (613 votes)
  • 3%
    Same guys, so nah, not really.
    (32 votes)
  • 0%
    Somehow its worse, bottom 5 unit again!
    (7 votes)
808 votes total Vote Now

NEW: Join Pride of Detroit Direct

Jeremy Reisman will drop into your inbox twice a week to provide exclusive, in-depth reporting and insights from Ford Field. Subscribe to go deeper into Lions fandom, and join us on our path to win the Super Bowl.