The Detroit Lions will open training camp (*checks notes*) tomorrow! So now is the perfect time to begin wrapping up our camp preview series at Pride of Detroit. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can get caught up here:
- Tim Boyle vs. David Blough for QB2
- Is Jermar Jefferson RB3 or will he face competition?
- Who will fill the all-important WR4 role?
- How many tight ends will make the roster?
- Rounding out the offensive line
- Balancing youth and experience on the IDL
- Establishing the EDGE
- Sorting out the inside LBs
- Starting roles up for grabs at CB
Setting the table at safety
The Lions are shifting from a single-high safety scheme to a primarily split safety scheme that will feature 2-man, Cover-2, and Quarters coverage. But that doesn’t mean the Lions are completely abandoning the center fielder approach, as there will still be Cover-1 and Cover-3 concepts mixed in.
The shift from a single safety to duel safeties covering the deep part of the field should have a ripple effect on how the team covers. By keeping two back, the Lions can reduce the amount of space the corners and linebackers have to cover. They can also split the field in half and run two completely different coverage schemes depending on the offensive formations. The biggest change though will be how the members of the secondary will assist each other in coverage, something we saw glimpses of in spring camp.
The Lions return two of their top three safeties from last year, as former third-round picks Tracy Walker and Will Harris are still working through their rookie contracts. While the team elected to not re-sign Duron Harmon—a Patriots disciple and primarily single-high safety—they opted to bring in Dean Marlowe from Buffalo, who is more familiar with the scheme.
After the top three, the position group is rounded out by six UDFAs from recent years. C.J. Moore (2019), Jalen Elliott (2020), and Bobby Price (2020) all return to Detroit for another season, while Godwin Igwebuike (2018), Alijah Holder (2019), and D’Angelo Amos (2021) were added this offseason.
As with the cornerbacks’ group, we turn our attention towards the New Orleans Saints for guidance in roster construction. Even though the cornerbacks saw some slight fluctuation in their numbers, it never came at the expense of the safeties. All five seasons during Glenn’s tenure as Saints’ secondary coach, the team kept five safeties on the roster.
Therefore, when estimating the number of safeties the Lions will keep in 2021, it’s fairly safe to assume they will also keep five on the initial 53-man roster.
Based on spring practices and comments from coaches, Walker seems set to start at one of the safety spots, likely at free safety where he gets to be himself again.
Opposite Walker, the other starting spot is far from settled with Harris and Marlowe battling it out for the job. While the battle winner will likely get more opportunities to play, the other player will still see plenty of time as the team’s third safety option. In today’s NFL, having a third safety is a must, but the challenge for the Lions will come when that player is asked to cover—which isn’t really a strong suit of the Lions' top options.
Things get even more complicated if the team needs to lean on a player beyond the top-three, as none of the six UDFAs have much experience on defense.
C.J. Moore could easily find himself as S4 due to his athleticism and ability to play free safety, but he needs to see a jump in his disciplined play on defense. That being said, Moore still seems like a sure-fire bet to make the roster because of his special teams contributions, including being the Personal Protector (PP) of Pro Bowler punter Jack Fox.
In spring camp, Elliott was taking reps with the second team as S4 and could have a leg up heading into the fall, but he will be looking over his shoulder at Moore and the rest of the group.
Price is uber-athletic and was called up to the show last season ahead of Elliott, but with a new staff in town, they have utilized him on the third team with Moore. It won’t take much for him to jump back in the mix and make this an exciting battle for the final spot in that position group.
Amos may be near the bottom of the group in the pecking order—not surprising, as he is the only rookie amongst the group—but his ability to return kicks makes him a player who could make the team exclusively because of his play on special teams. If Amos wins one or both of the return jobs, there’s room in this position group to give him a spot.
Igwebuike and Holder seem to be on the outside looking in for now, but there’s not a ton separating the depth of this group, and the opportunity is there to make a name for themselves in camp.
Walker, Harris, and Marlowe should take the top three spots regardless of order, leaving two spots for the reserves. Moore seems poised to claim one of those spots because of his special teams value, leaving one spot for the remaining five to battle over.
Based on spring camp, I’ll give the early edge to Elliott, but I am far from confident in this projection. In fact, if you’ve listened to basically any podcast I’ve been on this summer, you surely know I believe the Lions need to go back to the free agency market to find another veteran safety (looking at you, Tre Boston) who can bring some more stability to this unit.