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2021 Detroit Lions roster preview: Amani Oruwariye is in a make-or-break year

The third-year cornerback has plenty of competition in the present and future.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

The hype surrounding Detroit Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye has been there since he was drafted in 2019. Expected to go on Day 2, the Lions were able to snag him in the fifth round that weekend, leading many to believe the Lions managed to get an eventual full-time starter—and stud—with the 146th overall pick.

Oruwariye hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations yet, but he has gotten close. He’s coming off his first year as a full-time starter, but his future with the team could be at a crossroads in 2021. The Lions have made new investments into the cornerback position, giving Oruwariye some competition both in the immediate and for the future. With only a couple of years left on his rookie deal, Oruwariye may have only this year to prove that he’s worth keeping around for the long-term.

Let’s take a closer look at Oruwariye and the pivotal year that lies ahead for the 25-year-old cornerback.

Amani Oruwariye

Expectations heading into 2020

Back in 2020, the Detroit Lions heavily invested in the cornerback position. They drafted Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick, and just before they moved Darius Slay via trade, they signed his replacement in veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant. That left Oruwariye with the expectation to simply fill a backup position in case of injury. Okudah was destined to start as a top-three pick, and by handing Trufant a two-year, $21 million deal, they essentially guaranteed him a starting role.

Actual role in 2020

2020 stats: 16 games (15 starts): 53 tackles, 1 INT, 7 passes defended
PFF grade: 50.4 (108th out of 125 qualifying CBs)

But the injury gods were not kind to the Lions cornerbacks last year. Okudah started the season with a groin injury that persisted all season. Trufant left the opening game with a hamstring injury and would end up only playing in six games for the entire year. So not only did Oruwariye end up being a full-time starter in 2020, but he actually played more defensive snaps than all but one Lions defender (Duron Harmon).

Unfortunately for Oruwariye, the actual performance on the field was a different story. He struggled in coverage, putting up just a 51.2 PFF coverage grade while allowing a 96.0 passer rating when targeted. He also committed seven penalties—most on the team.

To be fair to Oruwariye, everyone in the secondary struggled. The secondary works as an entire unit, and when things are not working, everyone looks bad. If we’re going to give Jeff Okudah a pass for his rough 2020 season, it’s only fair to do the same with Oruwariye, as it was his first year as a full-time starter, as well. Both should be given a fair chance to prove themselves anew in 2021.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Signed through 2022

Amani Oruwariye is in a very interesting position this year. He will be in one of the most heated camp battles, as he’s expected to compete with Quinton Dunbar for a starting job opposite Okudah. On a one-year deal, Dunbar likely doesn’t fit into Detroit’s long-term plans—unless he returns to his 2019 form—so Oruwariye would be the better long-term option to win that job.

Unfortunately for Oruwariye, he also has some stiff competition for the long-term starting job. Detroit selected Ifeatu Melifonwu in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and it’s fair to say there’s an expectation for him to become a contributing member of the Lions' secondary in the not-too-distant future. While some have speculated Melifonwu could move inside to nickel or back to a safety position, war room footage of head coach Dan Campbell seems to suggest they believe his home is at outside cornerback.

“We’re gonna get Melifonwu,” Campbell told team owner Sheila Ford Hamp. “Outside corner from Syracuse. So he has build to go outside and play.”

General manager Brad Holmes continued to explain Melifonwu’s role to Ford Hamp.

“He’s an outside corner that he’s got that starter ability,” Holmes said. “He’s long, he can match up, he can run, he’s quick.”

In other words, Oruwariye has pressure to compete right now, and he has pressure to compete in the future. If he’s going to stick around in Detroit, he’s likely going to have to show it this year. If he gets beat out in camp or suffers from another struggling season, the Lions are in a position to move on from him after his rookie deal is up, maybe even sooner than that.

The good news for Oruwariye is that if he’s got anything in the tank, this coaching staff is going to bring it out of him. New defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn already has a history of getting the most out of young cornerbacks, as does defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Oruwariye, himself, has already seen himself improve this offseason.

“Coach Glenn and coach Pleasant bring so much knowledge to the game,” Oruwariye said during OTAs last month. “I feel like I’ve already grown as a player and it hasn’t even been that long. It’s been fun.”

If Oruwariye continues that growth and shows significant improvement, the Lions’ cornerback room suddenly looks potentially strong and deep. If not, Detroit may spend another offseason looking to upgrade the position.

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