Nickel cornerback has recently become one of the most underrated positions in the NFL. Given how spread out offenses have become lately, nickelbacks have essentially become starters, and they’re tasked with covering some of the most athletic receivers in the league. Shutting down players like Chris Godwin, Tyreek Hill, Adam Thielen, Cooper Kupp, and Keenan Allen is drastically important but nearly impossible.
So when the Detroit Lions unleashed a vault’s worth of money on nickel corner Justin Coleman, most understood that this was a pretty wise investment. Coleman had quietly been one of the best at his position over the past few years, and while four-year, $36 million contract looked on the pricey side, given the importance of the position, it seemed worth it.
But the Lions’ pass defense was a disaster in 2019, and Coleman’s play was inconsistent. So did the Lions make a poor investment in their nickel cornerback or were there other influences that impacted Coleman’s play. Let’s take a closer look at Justin Coleman.
Expectations heading into 2019
To say expectations were high for Coleman would be an understatement. Seahawks fans were upset to lose him, and PFF was hyping him relentlessly. Here’s just a sampling of how much hype Coleman was getting:
Justin Coleman is an underrated talent at slot cornerback and a significant upgrade for Detroit.@PFF_AustinGayle details why Coleman is flying under the radar as one of the NFL's rising stars: https://t.co/tDP3fUXRG3 pic.twitter.com/wfrBCxI8OK— PFF (@PFF) June 29, 2019
From @PFF, among the 31 players with 400 or more snaps played at slot CB in last 2 seasons, Justin Coleman ranks 4th in slot coverage grade at 84.3. He also ranks 8th in forced incompletion percentage (12.7%) and 7th in passer rating allowed (84.5).— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) June 24, 2019
In other words, not only was Coleman guaranteed the nickelback job, but he was expected to finally help Detroit not get toasted over the middle of the field.
Coleman had a rough training camp in Detroit, but most people simply shook that off and expected big things from him in 2019.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 16 games (11 starts): 54 tackles, 13 passes defended, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles
PFF grade: 60.7 (71st out of 115 CBs)
Coleman started the year hot. After forcing several turnovers in the first four weeks and looking sticky in coverage, the former Seahawk was proving he was worth every penny.
Unfortunately, it did not last. Almost immediately out of the bye week, Coleman suddenly struggled and struggled hard. He wasn’t making the game-changing turnovers, he didn’t seem as comfortable in the defense, and—worst of all—his coverage skills seemed to disappear completely.
Justin Coleman has allowed more passing yards than anybody football as the nearest defender in coverage this year.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 28, 2019
His middle of the season was nothing short of a disaster.
As you can see from the graph, Coleman did enjoy a nice bounceback at the end of the season, but inconsistency isn’t a trait you can afford to have as a cornerback, and Coleman’s lows were incredibly low.
Of course, there are other factors in play here. Detroit’s lack of a pass rush is a death sentence for a nickel cornerback. Dealing with shifty receivers, one can only expect a cornerback to keep their tight coverage for so long. And the Lions were one of the worst offenders in terms of lackluster pass rush. Detroit has the worst pass rush win rate in the NFL, the 23rd ranked adjusted sack rate and the 29th-ranked pressure rate.
That doesn’t excuse all of Coleman’s poor play in the middle of the season, but it does put it into important context.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2022 (2023 is automatically voided)
Coleman is still the undisputed starting nickel cornerback. In fact, the Lions should be slightly worried that they don’t have much depth behind him. Detroit did add Tony McRae this offseason, but he’s more of a special teamer with only a handful games of experience on defense.
The question with Coleman is simply: can he capture his mojo? Back in December, we asked cornerback expert (and big Coleman fan) Jonah Tuls what may be happening with the Lions nickelback. He seemed to suggest it may simply be a confidence problem.
“The cornerback position is all about confidence,” Tuls said. “The talent is definitely there, but he’s not being as aggressive breaking on the ball or trusting himself to make plays.”
Whatever the reason for Coleman’s midseason struggles, there are plenty of reasons to believe he could bounce back in 2020. First, just looking at his career, you’ll see that this slump was uncharacteristic of him. He had been budding into one of the best slot defenders in the league and showed he was capable of that in Detroit prior to the bye week.
Additionally, there’s reason to believe Detroit’s pass rush will be improved with the additions of Julian Okwara and Jamie Collins Sr., among others.
So while Coleman’s dip in play is concerning—especially when you remember his struggles in training camp—optimism is still warranted for the 27-year-old cornerback. Expect a bounceback season from him in 2020, as he learns to play alongside two new outside corners.