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2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Can Cameron Sutton be a true CB1?

Cameron Sutton was the Detroit Lions’ biggest free agent signing. But while he’s a significant upgrade, can he truly be a CB1 in Detroit?

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Our Detroit Lions roster preview series has tackled the 2022 and 2021 draft classes, plus the UDFAs added those years. Now we’re moving to an entirely different group of players: free agent additions.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes was uncharacteristically active and aggressive in free agency this season. That sends a loud and clear message both internally and to the rest of the league: we’re ready to compete.

Holmes’ first signing was former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton. The veteran corner received the highest contract for an external free agent the Lions have handed out since Holmes took over.

Sutton is a good player, but is he a great player? Will he be able to handle the top receivers in the league? Let’s take a closer look in the latest installment of our 2023 Detroit Lions roster preview series.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, and Jerry Jacobs

Cameron Sutton

Actual role in 2022

16 games (15 starts): 931 defensive snaps, 61 special teams snaps
Stats: 43 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, 15 passes defended, 3 interceptions,
PFF defensive grade: 71.6 (22nd of 74 corners with at least 600 snaps)
PFF coverage grade: 70.4 (29th of 86)
PFF run defense grade: 73.6 (18th of 86)
PFF tackling grade: 50.9 (51st of 86)

In 2022, Sutton had a career year. In only his second year as a full-time starter, Sutton became a key cog in Pittsburgh’s defense, which remains one of the best in the league.

His 15 passes defended tied for sixth most in the NFL, and you can really see his impact when you look at his receiving yards allowed per target and forced incompletion rate—both of which rank among the best in the league last year:

The Steelers also used Sutton in a variety of roles. While the majority of his defensive snaps (70.3%) were at the outside corner position, he also spent a significant amount of time in the slot (19.8%), and as a box safety (7.6%).

If you’re a more visual learner, some of the plays he made last year were truly phenomenal:

Outlook for 2023

When the Lions signed Sutton to a three-year, $33 million contract this offseason, Steelers fans were beside themselves. Many lamented the loss of the brains behind PIttsburgh’s defense and most believed Sutton’s price tag was more than reasonable.

There is certainly an expectation for Sutton to be a very good player in Detroit. And given that the division includes a few young, very talented receivers like Justin Jefferson, Christian Watson, and DJ Moore, Sutton will have his hands full. Having good divisional receivers is nothing new to Sutton, as he’s had to face the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Amari Cooper in the AFC North.

But does he truly have the level of talent to be a CB1 and potential lockdown cornerback? When we talked to Steelers writer Nick Farbaugh back in March, he expressed his doubts.

“He’s not going to be a corner one. If that’s what they’re expecting, I think they’re going to be a little disappointed,” Farbaugh told us. “He’s going to get beat every now and then. That is something, he does get beat. He’s just not athletic enough. If you put him against a guy like Tyreek Hill, for example, don’t expect him to cover Tyreek Hill. He’s not going to do that. Just don’t expect it.

“But if you expect him to cover some other receivers that maybe try to get physical with him a little bit or try to knock him around, he can do it. He can do it. He did it with Tee Higgins. He was (the Steelers’) one true answer to Higgins. He can cover taller receivers, he can do a lot of different things.”

When it comes to Sutton, though, his best features don’t always show up on the box score. His intelligence and communication often make the players around him better.

He is one very smart kid,” said Tom Bradley, the Steelers’ cornerback coach from 2018-2020. “He might be the smartest player I ever coached in all my years.”

“His global football knowledge and awareness and his ability to articulate it are unique, has been unique, and it shows up often in his play,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said prior to the 2022 season. “Not only in his play, but his communication helps others.”

Those qualities are going to be absolutely essential in Detroit’s revamped secondary. Detroit has a ton of youth in guys like Jerry Jacobs, Brian Branch, Kerby Joseph, Starling Thomas V, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Ifeatu Melifonwu that could use the kind of mentorship Sutton can provide. And with so many new players working together, the communication that Sutton will provide will be paramount to the unit’s success.

“You could just tell it was a fit,” coach Dan Campbell said back in April. “He is a nasty, tenacious, smart football player with versatility. And I’m like, ‘How can we not sign this guy?’”

So will Sutton be an absolute lock-down cornerback for the Lions? No, probably not. But he’s a very good player with production in this league and will be the hard-working veteran example that the secondary has been missing over the past two years.

Without a doubt, he immediately becomes the best Lions cornerback in Detroit since Darius Slay, and while his ceiling isn’t as high as Slay’s, his role as leader, communicator, and versatile chess piece is something the Lions need just as much as a lockdown corner.

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