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Detroit Lions 2023 training camp battles: Safety roster spots may be limited

With the addition of two hybrid defenders, how many true safeties can the Detroit Lions afford to keep on the active roster?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is almost here and we are wrapping up the defensive side of the ball in our training camp battle series by taking a closer look at the safeties. If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered, up until this point:

Let’s get started.

Setting the table

In 2022, the Lions' safeties saw injuries and opportunities throughout the year. Some were able to seize what was in front of them and thrive, while others were never able to take that next step.

The Lions rostered five safeties to start the season, and while they seemed to prefer to keep just four throughout the year, they often needed to rely on multiple players to compensate for injuries.

Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott opened as the starters, with rookie Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu (injured to start the year), and JuJu Hughes rounding out their depth. In Week 3, Walker tore his Achilles—ending his season—and the Lions held an open competition to replace him, thus beginning Joseph’s terrific rookie season. Joseph got the start in Week 4 and quickly became the Lions' most reliable safety on the roster.

As we noted in the cornerbacks' preview, the Lions began exploring alternatives to their coverage scheme in Week 5. One notable change was that they elevated Saivion Smith to the roster and started him in place of Elliott. Unfortunately for Smith, he suffered a scary injury on the second play of the game, and his season also ended prematurely. This temporary benching was also a wake-up call for Elliott, who ended up starting the remainder of the season, save for Weeks 16 and 17 when he was injured and Melifonwu started in his place.

Entering 2023, the Lions were able to return five safeties from their 2022 roster. Joseph is expected to enter his second season as a starter, while Walker appears to have recovered from his injury and is projected to return to the other starting role. Melifonwu is still on his rookie contract, Smith is also back after recovering from injury, and Brady Breeze also returns after spending most of the season on the practice squad.

The three players who contributed in 2022 that did not return, include Elliott, Hughes, and C.J. Moore, who was released after being indefinitely suspended for gambling. To offset these losses, the Lions signed hybrid defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, drafted hybrid Brian Branch in the second round, and signed undrafted rookie free safety Brandon Joseph.

Roster construction

The Lions reduced their safety numbers to four players whenever possible, but with injuries impacting the group throughout the season, they ended up with five players at several points.

Entering training camp, the Lions have six safeties and two hybrid defensive backs on the roster. As we discussed in our hybrid preview, Gardner-Johnson and Branch are locks for the roster and they could directly impact how many safeties the Lions elect to keep this season. If the Lions view the hybrids as potential options at safety—even if just emergency options—their presence could lead to the Lions keeping only three safeties on the active roster.

The battleground

With Joseph and Walker established as starters, as well as Gardner-Johnson and Branch in the mix as options, the Lions may only have one—definitely no more than two—spot(s) open for the rest of the competitors.

Ifeatu Melifonwu. After spending his rookie season at corner, the Lions switched Melifonwu to safety in 2022, and injuries significantly limited his development. He struggled in his first start, and while he improved by his second, he still needs to take some more significant steps if he wants to earn a contributing role.

Saivion Smith. The Lions showed a lot of faith in Smith, starting him over Elliott in Week 5, but we never got to see the fruition of why they gave him a shot. Smith, also a former corner, has always been a dynamic special teams player but if he truly took the next step in his development on defense—and can return to form after injury—he’ll make a strong push for the roster.

Brady Breeze. After claiming Breeze off waivers in 2021, he has found the field in each of the last two seasons as an injury replacement, mainly contributing on special teams. He hasn’t quite been able to throw his hat in the ring as a defensive replacement just yet but there is a reason the Lions have kept him around for what could be his third season.

Brandon Joseph. A ball-hawking free safety at Northwestern, Joseph transferred to Notre Dame and worked on expanding his positional range. The UDFA rookie looks comfortable in single-high and two-safety sets, but he has a tough road to climb in order to get into the mix for a contributing role. Still, there’s enough upside to his skill set that he could be worth stashing on the practice squad and developing.


Erik: I think the presence of the hybrid defensive backs is most felt here and the Lions may only be able to keep one of the reserves. In my mind, Melifonwu likely has the edge based on his upside and the coaching staff’s willingness to keep him on the roster throughout an injury-filled season. That being said, Smith is very much a sleeper to knock Melifonwu off or force the Lions to keep a fourth option from this group—there’s a reason they were willing to give him a shot at a starting role last season.

So Jeremy, I know you’re a Smith fan. Do you think the Lions have the space to keep four safeties? Or will they be stuck with just three, and if so, who do you like between Smith and Melifonwu?

Jeremy: Yeah, the versatility of players we categorized at different positions makes this one tough to project. It’s easier to think of the defensive backfield as a whole. Last year, the Lions initially kept 11 DBs. So if we figure in six outside cornerbacks we landed on from that preview, plus C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Brian Branch... well then maybe you only have room for three here.

I do like Smith a little more than Melifonwu as a player right now, but that comes with a couple of caveats. First, Melifonwu has not really been given a fair shake at safety yet. There’s a reasonable chance he takes a big step in Year 2 of that position shift. Additionally, Melifonwu undoubtedly has a better chance of being claimed off waivers as a former third-round pick. So Detroit may stick with him and try to stash Smith on the practice squad.

Erik: If they do elect to keep four, as you alluded to, it likely comes at the expense of another defensive back, and that means a corner. So the Melifonwu vs. Smith vs. Chase Lucas vs. Starling Thomas V is going to lead to some interesting conversations in Allen Park.

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