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Detroit Lions training camp battle preview: Starting roles up for grabs at CB

There is no consensus on the top 2 options at corner.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Detroit Lions will open training camp on Wednesday, and our camp preview series at Pride of Detroit continues to work its way through the roster battles. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can get caught up here:

Setting the table at cornerback

The Lions made a heavy investment in the coaching ranks—hiring defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant—hoping to upgrade the team’s secondary. Both coaches have preached establishing a symbiotic relationship between the secondary and front-seven, and Pleasant’s time with the Rams—the front is modeled after—will help facilitate that quickly.

Also working in the Lions' favor is the split safety scheme Pleasant ran with the Rams easily translates to the system Glenn is incorporating in Detroit, modeling it after his time in New Orleans. Now Glenn won’t be able to use the Saints as an exact blueprint because the Lions players don’t have the positional flexibility the Saints do, but there should be heavy influences in the play calling and design.

Last season in New Orleans, Glenn deployed man coverage the majority of the time, leaning heavily on Cover-1 and 2-man concepts, with some Cover-2, Cover-3, and Quarters zone concepts thrown in the mix.

Like most NFL defenses, the Lions won’t sit in just one coverage scheme but will have to be flexible in mixing up what they do in order to adjust to the offense. At the end of the day, Glenn will hope to put out a well-versed secondary that is comfortable in man and zone so that he can disguise his intentions ahead of, and during, the play.

This will take time, but Glenn has a proven track record of turning around a defense's ability to cover when he has talented youth that he can mold. In 2016 when he took over coaching the Saints secondary, they ranked 27th in DVOA with regards to defensive coverage, but over the next four seasons, they jumped all the way up to fifth, 12th, 10th, and third respectively under his leadership.

So it’s no surprise there is a youth movement is happening in the Lions secondary, as every rostered corner is under 30 years old. Jeff Okudah (22 years old) and Amani Oruwariye (25) return to challenge for starting roles. Mike Ford (25) was re-signed and has a shot at starting in nickel. Free agents Quinton Dunbar (29) and Corn Elder (26) are the oldest corners on the roster and are also in the mix for starting roles. Alex Brown (24) was signed after rookie minicamp and all three free agents are on one-year deals. Third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu (22), along with UDFA rookies Jerry Jacobs (24) and AJ Parker (23), round out the group.

Roster construction

While the Los Angeles Rams have been the model for the front-seven roster construction, the secondary will bring influences from the Saints roster into the mix as well.

In the five seasons Glenn was the Saints secondary coach, the team kept five corners twice (his first and last season) and six corners the other three years on the team’s initial 53-man roster. One of the reasons the Saints could get away with just five corners last season was due to their safeties being able to cover effectively in the slot.

Therefore, without a proven slot cover safety on the roster, the Lions will likely err on the side of caution and keep six corners.

Roster battles

Every starting and reserve position is up for grabs but based on spring OTAs and minicamp, Glenn has put three players into the competition for starting roles: Okudah, Oruwariye, and Dunbar. Okudah maintained a starting spot throughout, while the other two split time on the opposite side. Regardless of who wins the two starting jobs, all three will likely see the field, especially with the soft tissue injuries that pop up with secondary players.

Ford maintained a starting slot role throughout camp, but Elder was brought in to challenge him. Elder makes his impact with pads on, so when we get to that point in fall camp, this battle could heat up.

Melifonwu is the wild card. His lack of experience could keep him in a learning role during his rookie season, but he is also uniquely talented and could be a player coaches use in matchup situations.

Brown’s experience with the Kansas City Chiefs during their 2019 Super Bowl run will keep him in the mix for a role, but as of now, he is sitting on the outside of the six players listed above. Parker and Jacobs will have to climb the depth chart during camp if they want a shot at the 53.

Erik’s Projection

The Jeff Okudah we saw in the spring was more confident and expressive than anything we saw during his rookie season. Now that he is healthy, it’s going to be difficult to bump him out of the starting lineup.

It’s a coin flip between Oruwariye and Dunbar for the other starting role and the POD staff is divided on who they think will come out on top. For now, I’ve got Oruwariye penciled (very lightly) into the starting role.

Until Elder proves a bit more, the nickel spot belongs to Ford. Regardless of who wins, both should make the roster which would leave just one spot available and it’s hard to argue against leaving Melifonwu off the roster, which would complete the group.

It’s a tough road for Brown, Jacobs, and Parker, but as the old adage goes: You can never have enough corners. All three would have legit shots at the practice squad if this scenario plays out.