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Lions free agency grade: Breaking down the Justin Coleman signing

The Lions have their nickel cornerback of the future, and that’s a very good thing.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When labeling the Detroit Lions’ needs heading into free agency, cornerback was high atop most people’s list. When the Lions released Nevin Lawson, it officially jumped to a top-five need.

However, when dreaming up free agency targets for Detroit, most people focused on outside cornerback players. So when the Lions went out on Day 1 and agreed to terms with nickel cornerback Justin Coleman, there was a little bit of confusion. Detroit just spent $9 million a year on a cornerback, and CB2 is still as big of a need as ever. What gives?

Let’s take a closer look at the addition and how Coleman fits on the team.

Positional need

Believe it or not, nickel corner was just as big of a need for Detroit as outside corner is. With teams going three wide more and more often in the NFL these days, the Lions are likely to have at least five defensive backs on the field around 70-80 percent of the time.

Last year, the Lions didn’t truly have a nickel corner on their roster. While the common belief was that Lawson was their No. 2 outside cornerback, no defensive back played more in the slot than Lawson, with nearly 40 percent of his snaps coming from that position.

The rest of the nickel snaps came from a mixture of Darius Slay, DeShawn Shead, Quandre Diggs and Teez Tabor, among other—none of which had more than 90 snaps from the position.

And how did that lineup perform in 2018? Not well:

But with Coleman now aboard, the Lions don’t have to continually search for their nickel cornerback. They have one. And while Coleman doesn’t provide a ton of versatility (he played 74 percent of his snaps in the slot last year), he will assume one of the toughest jobs in the secondary and allow his teammates like Darius Slay to do what they do best—dominate the edges.


There’s no doubt that Coleman excels as a nickel cornerback. Let’s just drop in a few stats from his past two years with the Seattle Seahawks:

And consider this: Per SB Nation, the Lions were dead last in the league last year, allowing 9.52 yards per attempt out of the slot. Justin Coleman allowed just 5.21 yards per attempt.

If there’s a weakness to Coleman’s game, it’s in defending the run. Coleman has had consistent tackling struggles throughout his career, and his 5-foot-11, 190 pound frame makes him an easy target to block out of a play.

Seahawks point of view

It’s always a good indication of how good a signing is by looking at the reaction of the fanbase and media from his former team. Here’s a smattering of what Seahawks fans were saying on Monday.

From our friends at Field Gulls:

Beat writers:

And in Gregg Bell’s column:

Coleman was brilliant in two seasons as Seattle’s nickel back mostly covering inside, slot receivers while playing about two-thirds of the Seahawks’ defensive snaps; in that sense he was more a starter than Seattle’s strong-side linebacker.


This is where the signing of Coleman will be debated: Is a nickel cornerback worth $9 million a year?

There’s no doubt that teams are realizing just how important of a position nickel corner is, not just because they are starting to play more in every game, but because just how difficult it is to find talent at that specific position.

That being said, would the Lions have been better off spending a couple more million per year? Kareem Jackson got a three-year deal at $11 million per year, and Ronaldy Darby is expected to get even more.

It’s hard to put an exact number on the value of a talented nickel cornerback, but the Lions certainly made a statement about their priorities by making Coleman the highest-paid player at the position.


This was an aggressive move by Bob Quinn, and one that will probably go underappreciated by those in the national media. Nickel corner is an underrated need, and with now two cornerbacks that are playing at the top of their game, the Lions can get creative with their coverage to help compensate for their need at the second outside corner position.

The price was high, but the need was just as high. I like this move a lot and think it makes more sense that breaking the bank on an outside cornerback—since it helped paved the way to sign a guy like Trey Flowers.

Grade: A-


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