For the first few breakdowns of the Detroit Lions training camp battles, we talked about players who were not necessarily fighting for starting jobs, but jobs. Period. Over the next few weeks, those players’ performance could be the difference between making their dreams come true in the NFL and looking for a new line of work.
Today, however, we focus on a camp battle between players that will almost certainly make the team. These players, instead, will be fighting for playing time and superiority on the depth chart. Let’s take a look at the premier training camp battle: No. 2 cornerback.
The Challengers: Nevin Lawson, Teez Tabor
Lawson, the incumbent, had an up-and-down season last year. The former Lions’ fourth-round pick continued with his inconsistencies. While he was often in position to make plays, he rarely did and tallied just four passes defended and zero interceptions last year. Pro Football Focus was particularly harsh on Lawson, giving him a 41.7 over grade—good for 112th among 121 qualifying cornerbacks.
Regardless, the Lions re-signed Lawson to a two-year, $9.2 million contract this offseason, showing faith in the young corner.
Tabor, too, had a tumultuous 2017 season. The Lions’ second-round pick only had three defensive snaps by the Lions’ bye week in Week 7, but as the Lions trusted him more, Tabor began to show some signs of life. It wasn’t always pretty for Tabor, but his rookie season wasn’t all that much out of the ordinary for a young NFL cornerback.
Now he comes into training camp with a fair amount of hype around him. He was a standout performer during minicamp a couple months ago, and was even getting some reps with the first-team defense over Nevin Lawson.
Who has the lead going into training camp?
Although Tabor has all of the momentum behind him, I think Lawson still has the edge entering training camp. Minicamp is often used—especially by a new coaching staff—to simply get to know their personnel by throwing them into different situations. While Tabor looked somewhat comfortable as the No. 2 corner in May’s practices, he’ll have to continue to show that level of comfort in training camp.
Lawson has the experience and that comfortability already intact. Though his performance has been lacking as of late, it will be his job to lose when camp kicks off on Friday.
Will there even be a true “No. 2 cornerback”?
But maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. Lions head coach Matt Patricia stresses players who can play multiple roles with the team, and he’s shown in the past that he loves to throw five or even six defensive backs on the field at once. The key for Patricia is one thing: Matchups.
Calling Darius Slay the No. 1 corner could even be a misnomer. Take what Brian Phillips of Pats Pulpit told us earlier in the month:
“It wasn’t uncommon for Patricia’s number one corners in New England to be tasked with shadowing a team’s number two wide receiver without any help over the top.”
In other words, the Lions are going to use all of their defensive backs situationally, and putting both Tabor and Lawson into neat No. 2/No. 3 boxes may not actually match with what we see on the field. Here’s Philips again on how Patricia likes to use corners:
The secondary -- particularly in the week-to-week personnel-specific matchups. With such a diverse mix of guys in the defensive backfield -- from large, physical corners like Deshawn Shead, to smaller, quicker guys like Quandre Diggs -- Detroit will be able to implement unique coverage packages and assignments.
Remember that even last year, the Lions used a diverse mix of “No. 2 corners” situationally. Some weeks, Lawson was getting the majority of snaps. Sometimes it was DJ Hayden. Towards the end of the year, Tabor was getting 40+ snaps a game.
So while we all keep our eyes peeled on whether Lawson or Tabor is taking snaps with the first-team defense, remember this: The Lions are almost certainly going to find a role for both, and that can (and probably will) change on a week-to-week basis.