The New York Jets had the ball at the Detroit Lions 21-yard line five minutes into the second half of their Monday night season opener. The game was tied at 17 as Detroit had driven down the field for their lone offensive touchdown of the day only minutes earlier. Sam Darnold took the snap out of shotgun as receiver Quincy Enunwa took off on a quick out route. Nevin Lawson, the cornerback tasked to play coverage on the play, got caught in the route of another Jets receiver. The Lions corner got rubbed off the play, Enunwa made an easy catch and turned up field. By the time Lawson could recover, Enunwa was at the 5-yard line and a poor tackle from the defensive back threw the receiver into the end zone for a touchdown. New York held the lead for the rest of the game and this touchdown would quickly trigger a Lions collapse.
One could ask why Lawson, the oft-maligned corner who made a name for himself by being one of the most penalized players in the NFL, was even on the field. Better yet, why is he even still on the team?
While these questions do seem a little harsh they make more sense if you put them in the context of the Lions roster building strategy over the past few seasons.
The Detroit Lions selected cornerback Teez Tabor in the second round of the 2017 draft. It was a choice that was instantly met with some backlash. Tabor tested awfully at the combine and was expected to possibly fall to Day 3. Bob Quinn took a chance on him, though, hoping that the instincts and coverage ability he showed at the University of Florida would make up for athletic deficiencies.
At this point we knew that Lawson was not very good. DJ Hayden was signed to take over the nickel role and if things went right, Tabor was supposed to start across Darius Slay. Lawson was set to be a free agent in 2018 and Detroit already had the depth necessary to replace him.
Nothing went to plan. Quandre Diggs stepped up big time and started over Hayden. Despite Hayden being the third best nickel corner on the roster (Lawson is a decent nickel in his own right) he was still chosen to be on the gameday roster over Tabor.
Tabor was inactive for much of the beginning of the season and we were told that the plan was to ease him in to the action. The rookie never saw regular playing time until very late in the season, though, and the argument that he should be eased into the action never made sense from the beginning.
A player like Tabor, who does not have the physical gifts needed to succeed in the NFL but has the mental capacity and high football IQ to make up for it, is not a developmental pick. The Lions gave him a second-round grade as a high floor, low ceiling, player that could make an impact immediately. This makes sense, too, as Lawson had an impending free agency decision and it is always easier to replace a starter from within.
The second-round pick being scratched almost every game to start the season was a huge red flag that many overlooked. While the Lions technically had cornerback depth, no one other than Slay was a truly above replacement player there. Even after Diggs made a move to safety, it was Hayden, who was awful in 2017, that saw a majority of the team’s snaps at nickel. Tabor became a glorified linebacker at points last season, replacing fellow Florida draft pick Jarrad Davis on passing downs.
Tabor showed no signs of being the NFL-ready prospect Quinn thought he was in 2017, and the 2018 offseason may have put the nail in the coffin for him. Detroit re-signed safety Tavon Wilson and drafted Tracy Walker, signaling a move back to the slot for Diggs. They added Deshawn Shead for more depth at corner as well. The writing was really on the wall for Tabor when Detroit re-signed Lawson, the man he was supposed to replace all along.
While Shead was eventually released, Tabor failed to beat out Lawson for the starting job yet again in 2018. Against the Jets Monday night he only played two defensive snaps.
The player that Detroit drafted as an NFL-ready prospect that doesn’t really have much room to develop played two snaps. Two.
The only time when Tabor saw the field on defense Monday night was when Slay had to leave the game with an injury. He still hasn’t carved out a role for himself on this team and is still only a depth piece on this defense.
Now over a year into his career, one has to ask when Tabor will finally get his chance, if ever. Lawson played another awful game and the Lions secondary got gashed. Yet still the Lions believed they had a better chance to succeed without Tabor on the field.
Where is the smart, instinctual, NFL ready-corner we were promised last season?
Where is Teez Tabor?