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Detroit Lions 2022 draft preview: Cornerbacks

The Detroit Lions have a room full of young cornerbacks, but with questions for each, they could pick someone from the 2022 NFL Draft class to bolster the room.

NCAA Football: Murray State at Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions find themselves in cornerback purgatory. They’ve got a lot of young bodies at the position, but it’s unclear if they have anyone they can truly trust to be full-time starters—and it’s really hard to know if anyone on the roster has No. 1 corner, shutdown ability.

The 2022 NFL Draft will provide the Lions with a few opportunities to improve the room, including potentially getting a No. 1 cornerback right at the top of the draft. And while it seems unlikely the Lions would spend another top-three pick on the cornerback position, rumors are floating out there that Detroit really like top prospect Ahmad Garnder.

Let’s take a closer look at him and the rest of the cornerback class in this year’s draft.

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackle, guard, defensive tackle, edge defenders, linebackers

Under contract: Jeff Okudah (signed through 2023), Amani Oruwariye (2022), Ifeatu Melifonwu (2024), AJ Parker (2023), Jerry Jacobs (2023), Mike Hughes (2022), Mark Gilbert (2022), Bobby Price (2022), Parnell Motley (2022), Saivion Smith (2022)

Short term need: 5/10
Long-term need: 6/10

The Detroit Lions have a ton of players at the cornerback position. The problem is it’s hard to know how much talent they have at the position. Amani Oruwariye (26) is the only player who isn’t 25 or younger in the group, and we don’t know yet if he’ll be part of the Lions’ future, seeing as he’s on the final year of his contract.

Detroit’s other two presumed top corners—Jeff Okudah and Ifeatu Melifonwu—have started a collective 11 games together and missed a collective 35 games. Okudah looked to be turning a corner last year before an Achilles tear ended his season in Week 1. Now, one has to wonder if he’ll ever develop into a full-time starter, let alone a top-tier corner.

Detroit’s depth is fine, as Jerry Jacobs, Mike Hughes, and Bobby Price have all filled at varying levels of success. Price and Saivion Smith are also good special teamers to have. That said, only Melifonwu is signed beyond 2024, so there is a long-term need at the position, assuming no one earns themselves an extension.

Day 1/Day 2 options: Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner, LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., Washington’s Trent McDuffie, Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr., Florida’s Kaiir Elam

Standing at a towering 6-foot-2 34, Gardner is tall, lean, and incredibly fast. He floats on the field with smooth hip movements and quick feet. A Detroit native, Gardner’s game is already well-polished since he mostly played man-to-man at Cincinnati. His stats aren’t flashy (seven passes defended, three interceptions in 2021), but by his last year, quarterbacks were actively avoiding him.

Stingley is a fascinating prospect to scout. The top cornerback recruit of his class, Stingley immediately had a huge impact as a freshman at LSU in 2019. That year he tallied 21 passes defended and six interceptions. Many believed he was already considered a top-five draft pick before he was a sophomore. However, his game took a step back the next year, and injuries—including a serious Lisfranc injury in 2021—derailed the rest of his college career. Athletically, he’s got everything you could possibly want, but he’s not a very active tackler, and some question his efforts. But if he stays healthy and finds the right motivator, he could not only be the best corner in this class but the best we’ve seen in quite some time.

McDuffie is likely only going to be a Lions option if they trade down from two or up from 32. While he doesn’t have the length and height of the two previous prospects, he makes up for it with fluid movement, fantastic athletic traits, and great footwork. He’s also an aggressive tackler despite his size.

There are not a lot of things that Booth struggles with. He moves smoothly, has great ball skills, and isn’t afraid to get physical with press-man coverage and relentless run defense. However, he’s still a developmental prospect, as he was only a starter at Clemson for one full season. Still, look at some of these highlights:

Elam has some slot versatility to him. His specialty is his size/speed combo. He effectively uses his size (6-foot-1.5) as a physical force, but he was also tagged for seven penalties last season. His blazing 4.39 speed isn’t always obvious on tape, but in the rare cases he’s beat, he can make up space quickly.

Mid-round options: Washington’s Kyler Gordon, Auburn’s Roger McCreary, Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant, Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt, Houston’s Marcus Jones, UTSA’s Tariq Woolen

Detroit has plenty of options if they’re thinking about targeting a cornerback with picks 34, 66, or 97. Gordon has the athletic traits needed to compete at the next level and improved every season at Washington. However, he has just a single year of experience as a full-time starter, so there’s still room to improve.

McCreary is a little more polished with 23 starts against SEC-level competition. The Lions got a close look at him in the Senior Bowl, and they could have very well fallen in love with his personality as a scrappy, intelligent player. In 2021, he earned first-team All American honors after an SEC-leading 16 passes defended.

Bryant is a ballhawk. Benefitting from quarterbacks avoiding Gardner, Bryant tallied 25 passes defended and seven interceptions in the past two seasons at Cincinnati. He’s also a high-character guy (team captain) and aggressive tackler. His athletic traits, though, are somewhat average.

Taylor-Britt is another player from the Lions’ Senior Bowl roster. His 4.38-speed is obvious on tape, and he’s got an aggressive nature. However, he was misused at the college level in a lot of off coverage that didn’t take advantage of his physical nature. If paired with a coaching staff that knows how to accentuate his strengths (see: Lions), Taylor-Britt likely has some untapped potential waiting to be found.

Jones is coming off a fantastic season with 18 passes defended and five interceptions. But at just 5-foot-8, 174 pounds, he is purely a nickelback at the next level. Where he may intrigue the Lions is his skills as a returner—seeing as Detroit has no electric special teams weapon right now.

If you hadn’t heard of Woolen, you likely were first exposed to him at the NFL Combine, where he ran a 4.26 40-yard dash. Combined with his height (6-foot-4), that may be enough for NFL teams to take a shot on him. That said, his game is still very underdeveloped when it comes to the mental side of the game, and he’s a bit reckless as a run defender. He’s more of a long-term project, but the Lions may already have too many of those on the roster.

Late-round option: East Carolina’s Ja’Quan McMillian

McMillian gets a mention since he came to Allen Park for a top-30 visit with the Lions. An option at Picks 177 or 181, McMillian was extremely productive in three seasons. He tallied a total of 30 passes defended and 12 interceptions in 33 total games. That’s a testament to his instincts. He’s also a dog in the running game and was named captain. However, his size (5-foot-9, 181 pounds) will limit him at the next level, and he may be due for a shift inside as a nickelback.

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