Despite the immense struggles of the Detroit Lions secondary in 2020, the roster hasn’t undergone the drastic rework you might have expected.
Desmond Trufant was released a year into his contract after poor play and injuries. Duron Harmon, one of the biggest contributors on defense, left in free agency, but with the firing of Matt Patricia, the former Patriot was likely to leave anyway. Miles Killebrew, Darryl Roberts, and Tony McRae also left in free agency, but they were primarily depth pieces.
The secondary player that I want to look at today is Justin Coleman and his replacement, Corn Elder.
Coleman was signed in 2019 to shore up the slot corner position, and for the first few weeks, he did just that. He was playing at an All-Pro level, and five games into his Lions career, he was looking like a steal of a signing:
#Lions CB Justin Coleman (@JustinColeman27) records his first INT with the Lions and the 4th of his career.— Detroit Lions PR (@LionsPR) October 15, 2019
He leads the team with 8 PDs on the season and has recorded 2+ PDs in 3-straight games.#OnePride
Until he wasn’t.
Coleman never quite returned to that level for the rest of his time in Detroit, with sparse moments of greatness overshadowed by many poor plays. The punch-outs and ball hawking all but disappeared from his game—he went from seven passes defended in his first five games of 2019 to just one in 2020. While the Lions defense struggled as a whole, Coleman himself wasn’t without fault.
With a new defensive coordinator brought in, and in turn a new defensive scheme, it made sense to move on from Coleman and his sizeable contract. To the surprise of some, the Lions took awhile to find his replacement, and even that comes with questions.
Corn Elder, a name bracket frontrunner, slides in at slot corner. Through three seasons as a professional, Elder has just a single start to his name, but 2020 was the year he truly broke out as a consistent contributor on defense. Elder got a PFF grade of 68.5, good for 29th out of qualifying corners. With a contract coming in at under $1 million, he presents a low-risk option for a team looking for a youth movement.
However, with essentially just one year under his belt, the question arises about the consistency for Elder. Can he not only maintain his level from 2020, but improve upon it? There is also the cornerback room to consider. Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye return, and with the additions of Ifeatu Melifonwu and Quinton Dunbar, the secondary is unspectacular but full of potential. This even applies to the safety group of Tracy Walker and Will Harris. Not only do the Lions hope Elder performs, but they are hoping that the players around him can help out too.
Many would agree that it was the right time to move on from Justin Coleman, but did they adequately replace him with Corn Elder?
Today’s Question of the Day is:
Is Corn Elder an upgrade over Justin Coleman?
My answer: I think Elder will perform better than Coleman did in 2020, but I don’t necessarily view Elder as an upgrade. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but let me explain.
Coleman certainly struggled for most of his Lions tenure, but I am still a firm believer that the Lions defensive scheme was horrendous. Going from Matt Patricia to Aaron Glenn is the real upgrade to me, and I expect (and hope for) improvement across the board. As a result, I think Elder will perform well in the slot this year and exceed Coleman’s performance.
That being said, I think if you put Coleman into this current Lions defense, I’d wager he would perform decently as well. Coleman has talent, and he showcased it at times, but it is very possible that the struggles of the coaching staff hindered his ability. He signed with the Dolphins this offseason, and I would not be surprised to see him bounce back. Coleman isn’t much older than Elder (28 years versus 26), so I don’t expect a regression due to age either.
It’s worth noting, too, that the nickel corner job is not just being handed to Elder. During minicamp, Mike Ford was taking the majority of reps with the first-team defense. But with so few regular season snaps played at that position, it’s hard to know if Ford will win the job and if he’s an upgrade. Elder played 302 snaps at nickel last year. Meanwhile, Ford has just played 78 snaps at nickel in his career.
All things considered, I think Elder is a welcome addition to the secondary, and he and the coaching staff have a real opportunity to shine while under minimal expectations. The Lions better hope Elder stays healthy, because the slot corner depth behind him is barren.