Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is inching closer by the day and we have now reached the secondary in our training camp battle preview series. If you missed any of the earlier articles in the series, here’s what we have covered, so far:
- How many quarterbacks will be on the active roster?
- Reserve running backs’ jobs are up for grabs
- How will the wide receiver room adapt its hierarchy?
- Who is ready to lead the tight end group?
- Identifying the favorites for OL depth roles
- Sorting depth on the interior defensive line
- A crowded EDGE group creates interesting battles
- Starter and depth battles amongst off-the-ball LBs
Let’s take a look at the Lions' cornerbacks.
The Lions began the season with Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye as the starters, and through the first five weeks, they struggled as one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. Following the bye (in Week 7), the Lions changed their defensive coverage scheme looking for answers, and once again, trotted out Oruwariye and Okudah as the starters. After just one week the Lions made another change, firing defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Oruwariye would get one more start before being benched and replaced by Jerry Jacobs, who was now fully recovered from his ACL injury. By the end of the season, Okudah would also be benched in favor of Mike Hughes.
Despite the Lions attempts to find a combination that worked at outside cornerback in 2022, the coaches never appeared to be satisfied with the results—and the team’s offseason moves support that concept. Of the four different cornerbacks to start on the outside, only Jacobs returns in 2023, as Okudah was traded to the Falcons, while Oruwariye and Hughes departed in free agency.
Beyond the starters on the outside, the Lions leaned on Will Harris in a variety of roles, and he was credited with 10 starts in 2022, mostly coming from the slot. Rookie Chase Lucas only played six defensive snaps before landing on injured reserve. Jarren Williams was a practice squad elevation twice late in the season, but he only played on special teams. All three return in 2023, as Harris was re-signed to a one-year deal, Lucas was under contract, and Williams was given a futures deal following the season. Former UDFAs AJ Parker and Bobby Price also saw snaps in 2022 but neither were retained.
Setting the table
To recap, of the cornerbacks that played for the Lions in 2022, Jacobs, Harris, Lucas, and Williams return, while Okudah, Oruwariye, Hughes, Parker, and Price all departed. In total, the Lions lost nearly three-quarters of their 2022 starting reps and would need to be aggressive in the offseason to replace those snaps.
The first big move Detroit made was to acquire Cam Sutton in free agency, signing him to a three-year, $33 million deal, the largest contract Brad Holmes has handed out during his time as the Lions' general manager. Sutton is expected to start and be a leader in the secondary.
Next, the Lions signed Emmanuel Moseley to a one-year $6M contract. Moseley was a rising star in San Francisco and Detroit was able to sign him to a reasonable contract because he is currently recovering from ACL surgery. He is expected to challenge Jacobs for a starting role.
While the Lions didn’t select a cornerback in the draft, they did sign two undrafted free agents in Starling Thomas V and Steven Gilmore. Additionally, the Lions signed Khalil Dorsey to a futures contract, rounding out the cornerbacks' room at nine players.
NOTE: We will focus more on the Lions' hybrid defensive backs, i.e. expected starting nickel C.J. Gardner-Johnson and second-round pick Brian Branch in a future article.
Based on OTAs, the Lions appear to once again be shifting their focus in the secondary. The overarching plan appears to be to use their natural corners on the outside and hybrid defensive backs in the slot in 2023. Now, there will be some crossover, as some player’s skill sets translate and depth will be harder to find as the roster reduces numbers. But for training camp purposes, the Lions have nine corners who, at best, will be fighting for five of six spots.
Contractually speaking the Lions have two players who are locks for the roster: Sutton and Harris. Sutton’s deal comes with $22.5 million in guarantees, while Harris’ contract takes advantage of a type of veteran salary benefit called a four-year qualifying contract. Bottom line with Harris’ deal is that he costs $1.2 million to keep on the roster in 2023 but would cost $2.6 million in dead cap if they released him.
Moseley and Jacobs are competing for a starting role, and with the frequency that teams need to rely on multiple starting corners, both also appear to have a strong inside track for the roster.
With four spots virtually locked up, that leaves one or two spots open for the remaining cornerbacks to battle over. Let’s take a look at the competitors.
Chase Lucas. A seventh-round draft pick in 2022, Lucas has minimal NFL experience due to injuries suffered last season. Overall, he is highly intelligent, vocal on the field, and willing to be physical in all situations. His body type lends itself to a slot role, but he played six years on the outside at Arizona State prior to reaching the NFL, and his reps on the outside in the spring looked natural. With 4.4 speed, Lucas has gunner range on special teams.
Starling Thomas V. A confident corner who is similar to Lucas in many ways, Thomas was getting noticed in the spring for his impressive play. His smaller frame suggests a role inside could be in his future in the NFL but he was taking reps on the outside during OTAs and looking comfortable. His 4.3 speed and special teams skills point to him being s strong candidate as a gunner on special teams.
Steven Gilmore. The younger brother of NFL corner Stephon, Steven Gilmore was a 41-game starter in college with a nose for the football. Also undersized, suggesting nickel range, Gilmore made a few plays this spring but has some work to do in order to stay on coaches' radars.
Jarren Williams. Elevated twice last season for his replacement gunner skills, Williams only heard his name called once on either television broadcast, and that was for being penalized for taunting after C.J. Moore’s fake punt conversion against Minnesota in Week 14. His best shot at the roster is to put those gunner skills to use.
Khalil Dorsey. A late add to the Lions practice squad in 2022, Dorsey did not stand out during OTAs in the spring and appears to have a tough task ahead of him. This is his fourth year in the NFL, but he has only seen the field a handful of times, with all of them coming during his rookie season in 2020.
Erik: Projecting the secondary is challenging because of defensive backs' abilities to crossover positions and contribute on special teams. With the top four corner spots essentially locked in, I have Lucas and Thomas as the next most likely players to make the roster from this group. In my mind, these two could end up being the Lions' starting gunners in 2023, but I am also aware that there may only be room on the roster for one of them.
So Jeremy, do you think there is room for five or six corners? And if it’s only five, do you have a favorite?
Jeremy: I do think there is room for five or six. In these previews, I’ve been mostly in favor of keeping it short at some positions (No TE4 or EDGE7), and cornerback could be one of the positions that benefit if Detroit goes in those directions.
I’m not sure I really have a favorite between Lucas, Thomas V., and the rest. I loved the tenacity I saw in Thomas during the spring, but I know why you’re also such a big Lucas fan, too. He’s a cerebral, enthusiastic player who has every intangible this staff is looking for. As always, it’ll come down to special teams, and both players have a lot to prove there.
Erik: Seemingly every year I try to attach myself to a player with untapped upside that I believe could be an NFL contributor with the right opportunity and both Lucas and Thomas fit those requirements for me. If they can create that opportunity by standing out on special teams, both the players and the team could be better for it down the road.