Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is just days away and we continue our examination of the team’s secondary by taking a closer look at the team's hybrid defensive backs and how they factor into roster construction.
If you missed any of 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
- Offseason overhaul shakes up CB roles
Let’s get started.
For this discussion on hybrid defensive backs, it’s important to understand what traits are associated with a hybrid player and how they fit into a defense.
Historically, defenses have been relatively static, meaning they operated out of one system (43, 34, 52, etc.) and added players that fit into traditional roles. If a player did not fit a traditional role, they were labeled “Tweeners”—a largely negative term—and thought of as depth players only. But as offenses have evolved, defenses have been forced to adapt, teams now deploy “multiple” schemes, and players who can play multiple positions have become more valuable. The tweener label now has a different meaning (focusing more on players' physical size) and the “hybrid” label has emerged, identifying players that can be deployed in a variety of roles.
The major advantage of these skilled players is that when offenses change their personnel, the defense can leave the hybrid player on the field because of their ability to adapt. With regards to the secondary, a defense can disguise their intentions with a hybrid player because they can exist comfortably at all three levels of defense. If the offense gives a run look, the hybrid can drop down into the box for run support. If they use play-action, the hybrid play is athletic enough to adjust, or possibly even blitz, disrupting the play. If the offense shows a passing look, the hybrid can drop into the deep third, and if the offense runs the ball, the hybrid is skilled enough to still find their way to the play.
Setting the table
The Lions have a few players in their secondary that have played both corner and safety, including Will Harris, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Saivion Smith. Harris began his NFL career as a safety, then switched to outside corner, then nickel corner, and has rotated between the latter two under this regime. Melifonwu was a corner as a rookie but switched to safety as a second-year player and seems destined to remain there for the foreseeable future. Smith played corner at Alabama but has rotated between corner and safety with the Lions, landing primarily at safety last season and taking snaps there in the spring.
While the above trio has flashed the ability to be position flexible, the Lions’ offseason additions of C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Brian Branch represent players with true hybrid potential.
Gardner-Johnson is a fluid mover that can comfortably operate out of the slot, in the box, or at deep safety. Over his career, Gardner-Johnson has spent 60% of snaps in the slot, 22.5% in the box, and 17.5% at safety. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told the media that he plans on using Gardner-Johnson similarly to how he used him during their time together with the Saints (72% in the slot) but he won’t hesitate to move him around if he needs to. While Gardner-Johnson played just 5% of his snaps at safety under Glenn previously, he surely recognizes that Gardner-Johnson can be a dynamic safety after leading the league in interceptions in that role last season with the Eagles—where he played safety roughly 50% of the time.
Branch resembles Gardner-Johnson in his positional flexibility, and last season at Alabama, he had a snap count distribution very similar to how Glenn previously deployed Gardner-Johnson: 76% of his snaps came in the slot, 21% in the box, and just 4% at safety. While the snap counts are similarly split, Branch is not as fluid in space (deep safety) as Gardner-Johnson, but he is more lethal in the box—registering seven pressures and three sacks in 2022.
Last season, Harris was the closest thing to a hybrid player the Lions had on the roster—playing 68% of his snaps in the slot, 15% at outside corner, 15% in the box, and just 2% at safety—but he was not actually a true hybrid player.
Harris collected his positional snaps in chunks, usually when filling in for an injured player, while Gardner-Johnson and Branch flow from position to position throughout the game. For example, while Harris saw 103 snaps at outside corner, 75% of those snaps came during two games. Meaning, Harris isn’t so much a hybrid player, as he is a player with solid positional range.
The fact of the matter is, the Lions have never really had a hybrid player in the secondary but they’ll enter 2023 with two on their defense.
The Lions signed Gardner-Johnson to a fully guaranteed contract then drafted Branch in the second round, suggesting both are locks for the roster. If things play out as Glenn has suggested, the Lions may lean on the pair to handle the majority of the Lions’ slot duties.
Last season, Harris was the Lions’ primary slot defender, but it’s unclear if there will be room for him to continue that starting role in 2023. As we discussed in our cornerbacks' article, Harris’ four-year veteran benefit qualifying contract almost surely guarantees he will also make the roster. So, where does he fit? Because of his positional range, it’s more than likely that he will end up being a depth piece in the secondary, capable of filling in at multiple spots.
Harris won’t be the only player impacted by the presence of Gardner-Johnson and Branch. Gardner-Johnson’s ability to play safety at a high level could lead to the Lions keeping just three pure safeties, as opposed to the traditional four. Branch’s ability to play in the box could eliminate the Lions' need for a passing down cover linebacker.
At the end of the day, with Gardner-Johnson and Branch on the roster, they may have an easier job making tough decisions come cut day, while players that have a niche role may need to be looking over their shoulders for a hybrid player.
Erik: Jeremy, when we do our 53-man roster projection when this series of articles comes to a conclusion, I think we may truly appreciate how these hybrid players impact the construction of a roster.
I think I’ve finished my love letter to the hybrid player, but I’d like to offer you a chance to respond, elaborate, or add anything I may have missed.
Jeremy: Well, I think it’s worth noting that you clearly aren’t alone in your love of the position. Detroit clearly thinks it’s essential to what they want to do. It’s the reason they kept Will Harris around. It’s why Brad Holmes was waking his kids up when he found out Gardner-Johnson was coming to Detroit. And Branch is a Lions because they needed an assured long-term piece at the position. Versatility is so important to this regime, and that’s why I think all three of those players are essentially locks to make the roster. It’s also why—despite the fact that there’s no clear role for him right away—that Glenn outright said that Branch is going to play on defense this year.
That’s one of the reasons I have a guy like Chase Lucas on the outside looking in heading into camp. He has some outside/nickel versatility, but Detroit already has a lot of those kinds of guys, too (including Harris and Cameron Sutton, among others).
Sorry, didn’t mean to put a damper on this whole thing for you.
Erik: As Lee Corso says, “Not so fast, my friend.” We have yet to have our 53-man discussion and I still have a case to make for Lucas. And having two hybrid players in the mix may just give me the roster flexibility I need to make his case for the roster.