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Lions mailbag: How will C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s return impact the secondary?

C.J. Gardner-Johnson is coming to give the Detroit Lions secondary a boost. But what does that mean for everyone else? We answer in this week’s mailbag.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions have made a lot of changes in their secondary as of late. Starting cornerback Jerry Jacobs has moved to the bench in favor of both Kindle Vildor and Khalil Dorsey. Veteran safety Tracy Walker has been benched in favor of third-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu. Last week against the Denver Broncos, that combination seemed to work pretty well. It certainly wasn’t perfect against Russell Wilson, but it was the best performance out of the secondary that we’ve seen in at least a few months.

But this combination of players won’t last long, because the return of star safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson is imminent after the boisterous defensive back practiced for the first time in months on Wednesday. Without a doubt Gardner-Johnson will give the defense a much-needed boost, but what do the Lions do with everyone else? Who gets moved to the bench? Does anyone change positions again?

That’s one of our main topics on the return of this week’s Midweek Mailbag podcast.

Much of the conversation surrounds Melifonwu, who seems like the most likely candidate to move to the bench when Gardner-Johnson returns. But Erik Schlitt believes the Lions should—and will—find ways to get Melifonwu involved.

“Iffy has a lot of C.J. Gardner-Johnson in him, a lot more than I thought,” Schlitt said. “The ability to play coverage, the ability to drop into the slot, drop into the box, play the run, cover the tight ends. What I saw from Iffy against the Broncos, it looked a lot like Gardner-Johnson, where I was like, ‘Holy cow.’

“But guys like Gardner-Johnson—and if Iffy has the range like we saw last week—and (Brian) Branch, boy you can do a lot of things with those guys. Now, you probably can’t start all of them and Kerby (Joseph), because then you’re basically in dime. But if you are willing to sacrifice a linebacker—an off-the-ball linebacker—for one of these guys, then it’s possible. You may do it situationally: mobile quarterback, if you want to get a better athleticism matchup, second-and-long—if they get a holding penalty or something you may go to that set. I don’t think it’s a starting set.”

Myself, on the other hand, is preaching a little more caution with Melifonwu. Certainly, he’s had a couple of promising starts, but by his own admission, he is still learning the safety position and will almost certainly be the one who sees his snaps decrease significantly upon Gardner-Johnson’s return.

“Once C.J. Gardner-Johnson is ready, that’s his job,” I said. “Iffy is going to a rotational role at that point. He’s not going to be a starter at that point. They’ll still, as you said, they’re probably going to find ways to get him out there, because if there’s one thing that I think I’ve learned about Iffy over the past couple of weeks, is that the Lions actually wanted to play him earlier. It was the hand injury (that held him out).”

That conversation starts around the 8:30 mark in the podcast.

Other topics this week:

  • (2:10) What about the Broncos game is sustainable going forward?
  • (13:00) Will Brian Branch be freed to blitz more with Gardner-Johnson back?
  • (15:40) Which team the Lions have already played most closely resembles the Vikings’ defense?
  • (24:05) Will the Lions rest any of their starters in Week 18 if they’re locked into a seed already?
  • (26:40) Is Jerry Jacobs only a special teamer now?
  • (28:35) Is Frank Ragnow the offensive MVP?
  • (33:00) Are the Lions likely to draft an offensive lineman next year? What’s Jonah Jackson’s future with the team?
  • (36:40) Does James Mitchell have a significant role moving forward?
  • (39:50) Is Jared Goff’s superpower his resiliency?

Listen to the whole show here:

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