Ford Field gets rowdy on Sundays during the NFL season. All is still now, but if you listen quietly, you can hear the clamoring for the team to draft a cornerback. There is no sound powerful enough to drown out the non-stop screaming for the team to find an elite cornerback. It is the silent majority, the masses pushing the idea that the Detroit Lions need a great cornerback if they are to truly have success.
The thinking is that the Lions woes in the secondary will prevent the team from winning anything. Go to any social media site where there is a draft discussion and you will find a majority of Lions fans yelling about drafting a cornerback. It doesn’t matter how high in the draft, just take cornerback, and we’re all set.
There are problems with that thought process. The numbers don’t show that the Lions are suffering in the secondary and the Lions scheme doesn’t prioritize the cornerback position. As much as fans want an elite, game-changing cornerback for the Lions in the first-round, history tells us one is not coming. The numbers show that it would be a mistake to select one that high.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has done a truly admirable job of taking a team that was 0-16 in 2008 and making it a playoff competitor just three years later. He has used the “best player available” approach to select players to fill holes and add talent to the roster.
One thing he has not done is to select a cornerback with an early pick. We need to pay attention to that approach. In fact, Mayhew ignored the cornerback position altogether in his first draft in 2009. In 2010, he selected Iowa’s Amari Spievey with the No. 66 pick in the draft with the full intention of playing him at safety.
Mayhew followed that up by ignoring the position again in 2011. In 2012, he scored three cornerbacks but didn’t take one before the No. 85 overall pick. He has been consistent in his approach and expecting him to change his draft strategy is likely going to lead to disappointment.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz utilizes a defensive scheme in which pressure on the quarterback is the driving force to the Lions' defensive success. The scheme calls for the defensive ends to get up the field and force the quarterback into the pressure that the defensive tackles are applying from the interior of the defense.
When this defense is at its best, it is getting pressure from all four positions along the defensive line. Not only from the edges of the line, but from massive defensive tackles crashing inside and destroying the pocket.
This leads to the play of the secondary and why it would be a mistake to take a cornerback early in the 2013 NFL draft. The Lions have gotten very good play out of their secondary when their defensive line is doing its thing. It almost doesn’t matter who the cornerbacks are when the quarterback has no time to throw the ball.
In 2009, the Lions ranked No. 32 in the NFL in pass defense. They gave up 35 touchdowns and sacked the quarterback 26 times. The Lions finished the 2009 season with nine interceptions. The Lions surrendered a passer rating of 107.0 in the 2009 season.
In 2010, the Lions finished No. 17 in pass defense. They surrendered 23 touchdowns through the air and sacked the quarterback an astonishing 44 times. With all that pressure, it should not surprise that they registered 14 interceptions that year. Opposing quarterbacks had an 89.2 passer rating in 2010.
Remarkably, the Lions turned their secondary around in 2010 and they did it without drafting a cornerback early. This turnaround was driven by the Lions' defensive scheme and personnel along the defensive line.
The secondary continued its upward trend in 2011, again without any early picks added to the unit. They finished No. 11 in pass defense, surrendering 26 touchdowns via the pass. They finished the season intercepting 21 passes and sacking the quarterback 41 times. Their opponents finished with an 82.1 passer rating in 2011.
This brings us to the 2012 season when the Lions suffered an inordinate amount of injuries in their secondary. The Lions started eight different cornerbacks in the 2012 season. Still, with all of the players coming in and out of the lineup, they finished the season with the No. 19 pass defense.
The Lions gave up 26 touchdowns and intercepted the quarterback only 11 times. They failed to get as much pressure on the quarterback as they had the previous two years and finished with 34 sacks. They allowed a 91.7 passer rating to quarterbacks in 2012.
In summary, the Lions pass defense ranked last in the NFL in 2009. They brought in better personnel for their defensive line and immediately were rewarded with a jump in pass defense numbers. The positive trend continued in 2011, and it evened out last year when injuries took their toll.
If one thing is true about this defensive scheme, it is that the cornerback play is devalued, and the pass rush is the real driving force behind the improved pass defense we saw in 2010 to this point. This unit can only get better with a stronger pass rush, and without that pass rush, it doesn’t matter who is playing cornerback.
This brings us to the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft and what the Lions should do with the pick. We know that the current regime doesn’t value the cornerback position as they haven’t selected a cornerback before the third-round in any previous draft.
We also know that the scheme doesn’t need elite cornerback play, and the numbers prove that the scheme works without it. The Lions get away with average cornerback play because of the pressure they get on the quarterback. If the defense is going to be an effective unit in 2013, it is going to need a ferocious pass rush.
Gone are Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, and the Lions need to replace the production those players gave them. Currently, there are only two defensive ends on the roster. They are Willie Young and second-year player Ronnell Lewis.
It’s simply not enough for the scheme they employ to work, and it needs to be addressed early in the draft. The defensive line is clearly what drives the defense, and the smartest move the Lions can make is to select a game-changer at the defensive end position with the No. 5 overall selection in the draft. In fact, it is the only move they can make.
All statistics courtesy of nfl.com