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2021 Detroit Lions free agent profile: Could Darryl Roberts be a cost-effective nickel?

The Lions may be in need of a starting nickel corner, and Roberts will come cheap.

NFL: OCT 18 Lions at Jaguars Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions could see a lot of change in their secondary in 2021. With the defense now led by a former Pro Bowl cornerback, there will be a very specific vision in mind for Detroit’s defensive backs, and that could mean some tough decisions on the horizon for players from the 2020 squad.

One of those players is cornerback Darryl Roberts. The veteran cornerback is set to become a free agent when the league year starts in mid-March. While his 2020 season wasn’t very successful in Detroit, there is a logical pathway for Roberts to return to the team on another short-term deal.

Let’s explain how.

Previous free agent profiles: Danny Amendola, Matt Prater, Jamal Agnew, Everson Griffen, Duron Harmon, Kenny Golladay, Don Muhlbach, Jalen Reeves-Maybin

Darryl Roberts

Expectations heading into 2020

The Lions signed Roberts to a one-year, $2 million deal a month after the New York Jets cut him free.

Roberts was expected to take on a depth role, seeing as Desmond Trufant, Jeff Okudah, and Justin Coleman were expected to be the starters out of training camp. However, with skills as both an inside and outside cornerback, as well as some special teams experience, Roberts had more than enough value to land a spot on the 53-man roster.

Actual role in 2020

11 games (5 starts): 39 tackles, 6 passes defended, 1 INT
PFF grade: 54.3 on defense

Almost immediately, the Lions cornerbacks were decimated by injury. Justin Coleman was placed on injured reserve after Week 1. Desmond Trufant missed five of his first seven games of the season. Jeff Okudah entered the season on a bum hamstring.

So Roberts was tested immediately, and it didn’t go particularly well. Playing mostly at the nickel position, Roberts allowed a passer rating of 109.6 in 2020 per PFF and his overall grade of 54.3 ranked 95th among 121 qualifying corners. He also did not contribute much on special teams.

However, it’s worth noting that none of the Lions’ cornerbacks played particularly well, which brings into question coaching development and scheme decisions. Among all Lions cornerbacks with significant snaps on defense, Roberts’ PFF grade was actually the highest.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

In a normal offseason, the Lions and Roberts would likely go their separate ways after an unsuccessful pairing in 2020, but there’s reason to believe Detroit may want to bring him back.

Justin Coleman is a cap casualty candidate, given that his bulky $11 million cap hit in 2021 could severely limit what the Lions can do in free agency. Freeing up nearly $5 million in cap space could be a wise decision.

If the Lions decide to go that route, suddenly Detroit has an opening at nickel cornerback. Roberts is only two years removed from a great season (69.0 PFF grade) that earned him a three-year extension with the Jets. He provides versatility to play outside corner in a pinch, and although he wasn’t used on special teams last year, he can help out there, as well.

And best of all, he’ll come cheap. If the Lions were able to sign him to a one-year, $2 million deal last year, it stands to reason they can bring back the 30-year-old corner on a cheaper deal this season.

Of course, there will be other cornerbacks at Roberts’ level available in free agency, including a couple that the new Lions staff may be familiar with in the Saints’ Justin Hardee or Rams corner Troy Hill.


Should the Lions re-sign Darryl Roberts?

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