Defense, defense, defense.
Detroit’s deficiencies on that side of the ball were supposed to be a thing of the past when they hired Matt Patricia to be the team’s head coach. Instead, Detroit finished the 2019 season ranked 28th in Football Outsiders defense DVOA. Their pass rush was virtually non-existent, their defensive backfield was just as bad (29th in pass defense DVOA), and their run defense was no better than the league average after many thought it would be one of the best in the entire league considering their personnel.
The good news: Detroit has the third overall pick in this year’s draft, roughly $48 million in cap space before making any other moves, and the Chicago Bears are sticking with Mitchell Trubisky to start the 2020 season.
The bad news: All of the good news in the world doesn’t seem like it’s enough to fix this defense over the course of one offseason.
Plenty have pegged the Lions as suitors for Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah with the No. 3 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, but Detroit’s situation at corner is precarious at best. Rashaan Melvin was a one-year bandage, Justin Coleman’s first season in Detroit was equal parts both good and bad, and Darius Slay, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, isn’t settling for anything less than a contract extension to the tune of more than $16 million per season as he enters the last year of his current deal.
Which leads us to today’s Question of the Day...
Which free agent cornerback should the Lions sign?
Rewind the clock back to March of last year. Detroit went into the offseason without so much as a starting tight end on their roster. Luke Willson was one and done, Levine Toilolo was ready to move on, and the Lions were just months away from cutting bait with Michael Roberts.
In free agency, the Lions signed Jesse James to a four-year, $25 million deal to presumably become their starting tight end. Just a little over a month later, Detroit drafted T.J. Hockenson with the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, turning what was a glaring issue in 2018 into hopefully a strength in the year to come. Granted the team didn’t know Hockenson would be available when they were picking all the way back in March when they signed James, but they certainly didn’t shy away from allocating a ton of resources towards rebuilding the depth at the position.
Detroit is in as dire need for a cornerback as they were a year ago when they were hard up for tight ends, and that need could be exacerbated to the point of full-blown desperation should Darius Slay not be a part of the team’s future. Free agency will be the first place they look and there are plenty of options for the Lions.
Top-tier talents like Byron Jones and Logan Ryan will probably prove too costly for Bob Quinn’s taste, especially after splurging on Justin Coleman and Trey Flowers a year ago. However, Quinn, with the exception of 2018, has made big splashes in each offseason: the aforementioned signings of Flowers and Coleman last year, Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang in 2017, and Marvin Jones Jr. in 2016. So don’t rule out a surprise come March.
It’s more likely Detroit sets their sights on grabbing a veteran corner—preferably on a one or two-year deal—and it just so happens the market has a few good options. Chris Harris Jr., Jimmy Smith, and Darqueze Dennard are all viable candidates to help Detroit bring stability to the cornerback position.
Chris Harris Jr. is an obvious choice for Detroit considering the interest they had in the veteran at last year’s trade deadline. The Lions were ultimately unwilling to part with a third-round pick during discussions, but faced now with immediate needs to improve the position this offseason—and no longer acquiring just a rental—Harris Jr. is someone Quinn and Co. could pursue more aggressively. According to Spotrac’s “Market Value” contract estimator, Harris Jr. would be in line for a deal around $33 million over three years. The Boston Boys are in win-now mode, and that doesn’t seem too rich a deal to shore up the team’s standing at corner, especially when you consider Harris Jr.’s ability and versatility.
After making Pro Football Focus’ All-Decade team, Harris Jr.’s play took a slight step back in 2019, but it has less to do with him being on the wrong side of 30 and more so with being thrown into a new defensive scheme under head coach Vic Fangio. Harris Jr. made a career out of being arguably the best slot corner in the NFL during the 2010s, but Fangio and crew turned him almost exclusively into an outside corner last season. If Coleman can play more on the outside, and Harris Jr. can slide back into the slot, Detroit could have a much-improved secondary in 2020.