We sometimes get lost in parts of the offseason. It can be a boring time with so little football-related events going on that we look at storylines that don’t mean anything as exciting—or occasionally, as damning—simply because we don’t have anything else to talk about. It’s times like these where it can be a lot of fun to look back at what this roster used to look like against what it looks like now.
In that vein, I noticed something very positive that has been happening with the Detroit Lions roster that has gone seemingly unnoticed. The secondary has gotten a lot faster.
Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm the math guy, so you're probably expecting a bunch of charts overanalyzing 40 times for guys drafted a decade ago and comparing the average speed of each roster, noting a .01 difference or something like that. But don't worry, this observation is a bit more casual than that. While I did (of course) look up previous rosters just to make sure I wasn't seeing things, it's more about who is on the roster and at what point of their career than anything else.
In previous seasons, we've seen guys across from Slay with some wheels. Mike Ford has some speed. Nevin Lawson was a lot of things, but slow wasn't among them. Usually, though, the Lions have fielded a defensive backfield full of guys who used to be or never were in terms of speed. Rashean Mathis was a star in his day, but the Lions didn't get a guy with a full set of tread. D.J. Hayden was fast in college, but a myriad of lower body injuries clearly blunted his speed. James Ihedigbo, well, like I said, some guys never were. Not that these guys were terrible in their time, just not fast.
The 2019 roster, on the other hand, boasts some serious wheels from almost everyone involved. While there have been some injuries, this isn't the same type of story we had become accustomed to. Jamal Agnew was the fastest player on the team before his injury last season, only just beating Darius Slay, and both are back and working this year along with fifth-round rookie Amani Oruwariye. Mike Ford returns in his second season, with Marcus Cooper and Andre Chachere fighting for a role. The Lions signed Justin Coleman as well, and all of the guys mentioned bring speed as a positive trait.
Rashaan Melvin, the only long-toothed vet of the corners, is 29 and while he has had his share of injuries in his career, they were all minor. His speed has barely diminished since he became a pro.
With pick 81 in the 2019 NFL Draft, the #Lions selected Will Harris, SS, Boston College.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 12, 2019
Will Harris posted a Elite #RAS with Good size, Elite speed, Good explosiveness, Great agility at the SS position.
It will be interesting to see Lions plans for Harris in their backfield. pic.twitter.com/pXzWuV1IDy
The safety group is equally impressive. Tracy Walker and Will Harris are both young guys with high expectations and serious burners. 24-year-old free agent Andrew Adam's brings the same type of energy. Sure, Quandre Diggs has never been fast. You could make that argument if you want to. But I've seen him play and I'm not going to say it lest he remove my dome piece as easily as he would a soon-to-be-dazed receiver on a crosser.
This roster has favored explosive corners with speed and safeties who are either converted corners or those who can still play the spot in a pinch. It's rare in Detroit to see a secondary without any concerns about them keeping up with opposing receivers.
Alright, Debbie Downer, I'm not ignorant to the fact that Teez Tabor is still a thing. The quick snap back (read: cop out) would be that I don’t expect him to make the roster, because I don't. But here's what makes this an exciting group to follow anyway: They have enough speed as a group to scheme around those who lack it.
That last part is something I could barely imagine with previous rosters. Guys like James Ihedigbo you could work with, he had other skills he could use, but if he was matched up with speed, it was simply done. That's not the case here. If Lions have to put Quandre, or Tabor, or even Killebrew (who has been working with the linebackers since last season) manned up on a guy and he's trailing, that's probably a win for the offense, but with Tracy Walker and Will Harris behind them I don't see many scenarios a competent defensive play caller hasn't accounted for that situation. It's one thing to have guys with a negative trait you need to account for, it's another to have such a strength on your roster that you can ask them to play any role, even one that doesn't best suit their talents, because there are guys there who can cast a net if it doesn't work out and the play starts to break down.
The instincts and hard-hitting ability of Quandre Diggs and the Lions linebacker crew can be fully utilized by this defense, more so than ever before, because they won't have to worry about playing catch up in coverage. Knowing what the safeties are going to do is a huge part of an offense being able to move downfield, and an entire squad of guys who can cover underneath while also having the range to cover the field in cover 1, cover 2, or cover 3 is invaluable.
The surprise selection of both Tracy Walker and Will Harris may have caught many fans off guard, but I think I’m starting to see what the team is trying to build. Having an identity on defense that your guys can run with anyone, can cover any amount of ground, can close to the ball no matter where it is on the field is a scary one to gameplan for. We have yet to see what this defense is truly capable of, but I, for one, am truly excited to see what they can do with this type of speed.