The Detroit Lions need cornerback help. Isn't it obvious? In the final game of the regular season and first week of the playoffs, the Lions secondary was savaged for 946 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
With these embarrassing failures fresh in their minds, draft experts everywhere are rushing to mark the Lions down for a first-round cornerback. As Mlive.com noticed, initial mocks by three experts from CBSSports.com and SI.com all have the Lions drafting a cornerback with the 23rd overall pick.
But that won't solve the Lions' secondary problems.
Late First-round Cornerbacks Rarely Excel
Here's a chart of first-round cornerbacks of the last 10 years that picked on or after the Lions' 23rd slot:
Of the 17 corners taken in the latter-third of the first round in the the last 10 drafts, only five ever made the Pro Bowl, and only three were ever named first- or second-team All-Pro.
The best player of the group is the Eagles' Nnamdi Asomugha, but his individual accomplishments don't stack up to his popular reputation. In his nine-year career Asomugha's only made the Pro Bowl three times; the resumés only get thinner from there.
Dallas Cowboys CB Mike Jenkins made the Pro Bowl in his second season, but has yet to make a return trip. Cincinnati Bengals draftee Johnathan Joseph needed six seasons and a move to Houston to make his first Pro Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles' Lito Sheppard broke out with an All-Pro performance in his third season, but never earned that honor again (and only made one other Pro Bowl).
Even New England Patriots wunderkind Devin McCourty couldn't defy the trend for long. He made the Pro Bowl and was an All-Pro second team as a rookie in 2010. But he regressed in 2011, and the jury is still out on whether he'll regain his remarkable rookie form.
Late First-round Cornerbacks Rarely Contribute Right Away
Cornerbacks are the defense's answer to wide receivers. The cat-and-mouse game the two positions play with man and zone coverages, cushion and tight press, and route-running and route trees takes time and repetitions to learn. The last cornerback to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year was the Packers' Charles Woodson in 1998. Before him, it was Chiefs standout Dale Carter in 1992.
McCourty, Carolina Panthers corner Chris Gamble, and San Diego Chargers washout Sammy Davis were the only three recent late first-round corners to start their full rookie season. In all three cases, they were "drafted to start" because of their team's immediate need. Gamble has been a steady starter since 2004, but has never excelled; Davis has bounced around with three teams in his five-year career.
Sheppard and Asomugha are clearly the class of this group, but, between the two of them, only had one start in their first 27 games!
Of this group, the average number of rookie games played is 14, and the average number of starts is six. Most of these players began the season as nickel or dimebacks, and had to either beat out the incumbent starter or wait for an injury to open the door for them.
As players like Woodson prove, it's possible for a cornerback to possess the instincts and physical tools needed to overcome the NFL learning curve and excel from day one. But those players don't typically fall to No. 23 in the draft.
The Lions Have Good Young Options at Cornerback
In the aftermath of the NFC Wild Card Game, popular sentiment seemed to be that the Lions had no worthwhile corners at all.
But veteran Chris Houston had another solid season, Aaron Berry was the highest-graded Lions corner (No. 24 overall) by Pro Football Focus, and, in between big mistakes, Eric Wright and Alphonso Smith made some big plays. The Lions had the fifth-best interception total in the NFL this year, with 21.
Even if the Lions allow Wright to leave in free agency, any prospective rookie cornerback will have to battle Berry and Smith for playing time. Both have two years' familiarity with the coaches and the system, and both are still quite young (23 and 26, respectively) so this theoretical rookie will have an uphill battle just to get on the field.
The last two games of the season looked rough, but giving up on Smith, or especially Berry, would be foolish. The most egregious coverage breakdowns were the fault of the safeties. And even with the missed opportunities in New Orleans, the Lions had opportunities for the win. Using their first-round pick on a cornerback spends a huge resource that won't address the apparent need.
The Lions Have Much More Pressing Short- and Long-term Needs
Jim Schwartz and the Lions have almost made a point of not investing heavily at cornerback. Schwartz frequently did well with "no name" cornerbacks in Tennessee, and the Lions are committed to investing and reinvesting in the offense and defensive lines.
It wasn't just the secondary that failed in the wild card game. It was the offense failing to net a single point from two first-half turnovers, and it was the defensive line failing to consistently pressure Drew Brees. Those are the two areas of the team—the two identities—that must be effective for the Lions to succeed.
The Lions have invested a lot in the offense and front seven, and major building blocks of both are either unrestricted free agents (Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, Stephen Tulloch) or ready for their eventual replacements to be groomed (Backus, Raiola).
The Lions wouldn't have gone 10-6 and made the playoffs if the offense and front seven hadn't played as well as they did; replacing that performance has to be the first priority. Allowing the offensive line, defensive line or linebackers to backslide wouldn't be worth bringing in a rookie to compete for the nickel spot.