Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Cornerbacks

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Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Cornerbacks
Photo: Mike Sudds

In the final article in this series of position previews, I’ll break down the Lions’ cornerbacks. With training camp days away, we have a pretty good handle on how every position stacks up and can see both the strengths and weaknesses in the depth chart, which has been modified as events have unfolded.



Positions, Packages and Systems

First, let me say that cornerbacks are considered the only “skill” players on the defensive side of the ball. They get the big bucks, baby! They are also the most injury-prone players on an NFL roster.

There are three CB positions. Two corners patrol the perimeters while a third and sometimes a fourth CB will occupy the slot (SCB). The SCB isn’t system-specific and can be manned by a CB, OLB or a safety.

While the SCBs define the “nickel” and “dime” packages, it’s the perimeter corners who define the CB system.

It doesn’t matter whether an NFL team runs a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense; there are two distinct CB systems employed by NFL teams. They are the 1CB/2CB system, or the far more common LCB/RCB system.

Those teams who are fortunate enough to have that rarest of football gems—the “shutdown” CB—use the 1CB/2CB system. That shutdown No. 1 CB will be matched up against an opponent’s top receiving threat no matter where that receiver lines up on any given play.

The best receivers in the game are routinely schemed into irrelevance by a No. 1 CB who can play on an island and deprive an opponent of its top offensive weapon on a fairly consistent basis.

It requires a remarkably high level of talent to be a No. 1 CB in the 1CB/2CB system. Think Darrelle Revis, Joe Haden, Rod Woodson or Champ Bailey. Patrick Peterson is the newest member of this elite group.

What makes a CB in either system? I explain it all here.

The Lions don’t have a shutdown CB. This fact dictates that the Lions deploy their corners in an LCB/RCB system. Determining where a CB best fits this system is of crucial importance as we will see.

The Lions’ LCB/RCB system is predicated upon strict zone coverage, plus help from the safeties. You will seldom see any Lions CB in man-press coverage up on the line of scrimmage other than short-yardage or goal-line situations.

They simply lack the skill set needed to be successful man-press or man-cover corners. As a result, Detroit corners line up five yards off the line of scrimmage in a “soft” zone look.



The Cornerbacks

As usual, game and season stats will be provided by ProFootballFocus.com Premium Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise specified.

All measurable statistics and combine results are provided by NFL.com unless noted.

 

Leon Halip/Getty Images

LCB Chris Houston

Houston (5’11”, 178 pounds) is a natural LCB. His performance takes a noticeable drop as a RCB when pressed into service there. No further proof is needed than his one-on-one drills in training camp.

This will be Houston’s seventh NFL season and it’s a safe assumption that we’ve seen his ceiling. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Houston has become a safe, reliable LCB who can hold his own.

I’ve always maintained that Houston has the toughest job in the NFL: covering WR Calvin Johnson one-on-one in practice every day. Hey! If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, right?

Houston’s nothing flashy, but he has outstanding 4.32 speed that allows him to stick to receivers as the best man-cover option in the Lions secondary.

Since his arrival in Detroit in 2010, Houston’s ball awareness has improved dramatically. The game is slowing down for him.

In 2012, Houston played 931 snaps (only 56 at RCB). Of 113 corners who played over 307 snaps last season, Houston ranked 23rd overall despite being limited by ankle and arm injuries.

Houston led all Lions cornerbacks in 2012 with two interceptions and six passes defended.

 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images


RCB/LCB Ron Bartell

Bartell checks in at 6’1”, 210 pounds. He’s entering his ninth NFL season after a long stint in St. Louis and one season in the black hole of despair—Oakland.

Bartell was signed as a free agent by the Lions in December, 2012 in response to a rash of injuries suffered by members of the Lions secondary. He played only 64 snaps for the Lions (Week 17) at RCB, but acquitted himself fairly well with nine total tackles (missing none) and one pass defended on seven targets.

Bartell has been predominately a LCB over his career, but has shown enough promise at RCB with his 4.37 speed, according to NFLdraftscout.com, to be a valuable depth player behind Houston while competing for the RCB starting job and mentoring the kids.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images



RCB Bill Bentley

Bentley is 5’10”, 182 pounds. He was the Lions’ third-round draft pick in 2012 who won the starting RCB job as a rookie. This doesn’t say as much about Bentley’s prowess as it does about the woeful state of the 2012 Lions' corners as a whole.

Bentley is a natural “righty” who looked completely lost in his training camp reps at LCB. During the regular season, Bentley played only 177 snaps (all at RCB) before going on IR with a shoulder injury.

Opponents targeted the rookie without hesitation in 2012, and Bentley fell victim to just about every mistake that a rookie not named Patrick Peterson can make in spot duty over four games. He was penalized five times and missed five tackles.

Experienced cornerbacks who play wounded will get tested. Rookie corners who play wounded will get abused. That’s life in the NFL.

Having 4.43 speed isn’t much of a liability. Bentley is a decent fit as a cover corner who shows good quickness in transition to run support and a physical tackling style that fans love.

Bentley will compete at RCB in training camp, but I view him in a backup role until he gains experience and hones his instincts. The competition for the starting RCB job is that keen.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports



RCB Darius Slay

Slay (6’1”, 190 pounds) was the Lions' second-round draft pick this season. He was drafted ahead of his more highly touted Mississippi State teammate Jonathan Banks despite suffering a torn meniscus that required surgery.

Watching the All-22 film of Slay and Banks, it was abundantly clear that opponents targeted Slay, the No. 2 CB in the Bulldogs' 1CB/2CB system far more often than Banks.

Big mistake.

Slay forced a number of dropped passes that didn’t show up among the six passes he defended in 2012. He also intercepted five passes (one a pick-six). Slay’s 4.36 speed was showcased and his technique from the left or right side of the formation was equally smooth and effective.

Slay’s transition to run support has to improve some, but he takes great angles and is an extremely reliable tackler.

Slay can play RCB, LCB or either role in a 1CB/2CB system at a high level.

To be certain, Slay will endure the growing pains that all rookie corners experience in the NFL. To his credit, he looks very much the real deal as the heir apparent to Houston‘s LCB job. He is also a viable option as a No. 1 CB down the line if a switch to a 1CB/2CB system becomes feasible.

If Slay is indeed a shutdown CB, make no mistake: Detroit will switch to a 1CB/2CB system in a blink.

Add to Slay’s resume his ability to return punts and kickoffs, as well as his experience as a “gunner,” and you have a ball-hawking CB who can play press- or man-cover defense as well as zone coverage.

Slay has a legitimate shot at winning the RCB starting job outright, but he should play about 400 snaps at both positions if he‘s relegated to a supporting role.

I’ll keep Slay penciled in as a backup until he earns the right to start at RCB over his more experienced competitors.



LCB/RCB Jonte Green

USA TODAY Sports

Green (6’0”, 184 pounds) was the Lions’ sixth-round draft pick in 2012. In training camp last season, he looked like a natural LCB wannabe who needed to be tasered into turning his head when the ball was in the air—even with teammates and bleacher creatures alike screaming, “BALL!”

Green, who has 4.40 speed, according to NFLdraftscout.com, looked destined for the practice squad, or worse. He was a lost child in his training camp reps at RCB, where his legs seemed to be in a perpetual tangle.

But Green worked with a single-minded determination. Over two weeks of camp, he was easily the most improved player on the entire team. He still looked a bit tentative at RCB, but he was actually winning some of those one-on-one battles against Lions receivers.

Even Calvin Johnson was amazed, judging by the surprised look on his face after being owned by Green on two consecutive reps.

Green looked like a practice-squad project until Bentley’s shoulder injury in the 2012 preseason forced the Lions to promote him to the Week 1 active roster.

Green bombed in his Week 1 debut, drawing a penalty and blowing two coverages on special teams. He was active for the next three games but was benched, for all intents and purposes, by the coaching staff.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Green redoubled his efforts and was rewarded with additional snaps and eventually the starting RCB role. His growth during the season was nothing short of stunning.

Green will see an expanded role in 2013, and I expect to see a quantum improvement in his technique, anticipation and overall performance in training camp.



LCB/SCB Chris Greenwood

When Greenwood was drafted by Detroit in the fifth round in 2012, I went, “Whoa!” Admit it, you did the same thing, didn’t you?

I went on an immediate treasure hunt for “All-22” film packages where I could analyze Greenwood against Albion’s toughest competition. I managed to find a couple (one from 2011), and this is what I saw:

Greenwood (6’2”, 193 pounds) is a natural LCB of average NFL CB speed (4.42 according to NFLdraftscout.com). He’s a far better zone-cover corner than a press- or man-cover corner.

While he excelled at RCB and LCB against D-III opponents as Albion‘s No. 1 CB, his dominant left leg will get him a big, fat bullseye from NFL offensive coordinators if he takes a single snap at RCB.

Greenwood will be abused in training camp one-on-one drills at RCB. At LCB? Not so much.

It’s rare for a college CB at any level to have the kind of awareness and anticipation that Greenwood possesses. Call it spatial orientation if you will, but Greenwood has an uncanny knack for getting his head turned at the right place and the right time while defending a route.

Add good ball skills to outstanding instincts and you have a corner who will overcome any speed deficiency.

Greenwood is a reliable wrap-up tackler whose angles consistently put him in good position. His downside is his extremely poor transition to run support owing to a high, choppy back-pedal and slow footwork.

Greenwood’s technique needs some serious polish. I’m fairly certain that an offseason of NFL coaching and training will show a marked improvement over what the film told me.

All together now, “What do you call a cornerback who can’t flip his hips?”

“A safety!”

Yes, folks, Greenwood is a safety. His speed would actually be a bonus. His instincts, angles, tackling and ball skills would elevate the performance of the safety group dramatically.

Most of all, Greenwood’s lack of CB technique would become largely a non-issue.

Did you know that Greenwood returned kicks at Albion?

Anyway, I can’t fault the Lions for giving Greenwood every chance to fail at CB before he is ultimately moved to safety.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images



SCB Ross Weaver

This is Weaver’s fourth year as a pro. To date, Weaver (6’1”, 210 pounds) has played zero snaps for Miami (who signed Weaver in 2010 as an UDFA), Seattle or Dallas before signing with Detroit as a UFA in January 2013.

Weaver also had a brief stint with the Jacksonville Sharks (Arena league).

Who is Ross Weaver? And what is the nature of his game?

Michigan State fans will remember Weaver for his physical style of play as a CB and a special teams player. He was the No. 2 CB who was paired with Chris Rucker. Rucker was drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft by the Colts.

Weaver’s 4.41 speed and his size make him look like a better fit at safety. We’ll see how the Lions work Weaver into the mix, but I suspect that he’ll have to be dynamite on special teams coverage units.

You can be sure that the suddenly expendable safety John Wendling will be watching Weaver very closely as well.



SCB DeQuan Menzie

Menzie (5’11”, 202 pounds) is a second-year veteran who came from the juggernaut known as Alabama, where he was the No. 2 CB behind the dynamic Dre Kirkpatrick on the nation‘s best college defense. He was used in a number of roles: nickel safety, SCB and some perimeter duties.

Menzie was most effective against the run from the slot or as an in-the-box safety. He was decent as a press-cover CB who maintained the edge, forcing ball-carriers inside where there was help.

He is a reliable tackler who takes good angles to contact. He shows remarkable strength taking on blockers and can disrupt plays by pushing blockers into the backfield.

Menzie is not a man-cover option. He never gets his head turned around, so he can’t make plays on the ball. In zone coverage, he displays RCB techniques, but his reads aren’t very instinctive.

This draft analysis sums up Menzie very well. Note the ugly 4.74 speed.

Menzie was a fifth-round draft pick by the Chiefs in 2012, who moved him to safety due to his—get this—stiff hips.

Yes, that old CB bugaboo, the hip flexor, forced KC to put him on IR for the 2012 season after a preseason-game injury.

He was released this offseason and the Lions pounced, claiming him on waivers. Could he be a steal?

Menzie will get an opportunity to compete at CB, but he looks like a SCB option only, or another safety. He’ll also get some reps on special teams.



RCB Domonique Johnson

Johnson (6’1”, 191 pounds) is a fifth-year, well-traveled veteran who’s played for the Broncos (where he was signed as an UDFA in 2009), Giants, Buccaneers, Vikings, Redskins, Eagles, Colts, Redskins (again) and now the Lions.

Why can’t Johnson stick with a team? Well, his 4.58 speed is a good place to start. Johnson is slow, even by safety standards. Then there are the missed tackles and poor hands.

What do you call a CB with poor hands?

A safety.

What do you call a safety who can’t tackle?

A camp body.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports



SCB/S Martavius Neloms

Neloms (6’0”, 189 pounds) is listed as a safety on the Lions roster. My mistake for thinking of him as anything else. A Homer Simpson moment.

Neloms was signed as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky, where he played CB and safety for the Wildcats.

NFLdraftscout.com lists Nelom’s speed at 4.52. He has room to grow into his frame and looks like a player seriously in need of a season on the practice squad.

He was an effective SCB and an in-the-box safety whose physicality forced four fumbles and 9.5 tackles for a loss over three seasons.

In coverage, Neloms is strictly a zone DB. While he made a couple of INTs for the Wildcats (one as a safety), his film showed below-average ball skills as a CB. As a safety, he made five of his eight career pass breakups.

Neloms will have to win a special teams job on his physical play, or he could be a practice squad candidate pending further NFL seasoning.



Conclusions

The Lions have assembled their deepest, most talented group of corners in recent memory. So deep is this group that one or even two will be serious competitors at safety based on their speed alone.

The 2013 edition of the Lions' cornerback corps is taller as a group by a wide margin.

It’s too early to pencil in Slay as the starter at RCB. Stiff competition from Bartell and Bently, in particular, is expected, and Lions coaches love experience. Nevertheless, Slay should see at least 400 snaps in 2013.

The Lions will maintain six cornerbacks on the 53-player roster. Two or even three will have to be major contributors on special teams.

Jonte Green, last season’s most improved Lions player, looks like a lock as Houston’s LCB backup, but his experience at RCB could be a bonus as injuries begin to take their inevitable toll.

Greenwood will get every chance to fail at CB before ultimately being moved to safety, where he has the chops to easily make the roster. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Weaver and Neloms.

The effectiveness of this group of corners will be judged on turnovers, coverage sacks and limiting those 20-plus-yard passing plays to opponents.



That’s a Wrap

Well, your intrepid Bleacher Report Lions reporter is off to training camp! I’ll be that goofy-looking old guy with a camera and notebook, furiously scribbling notes that I need my Bozo Decoder Ring to interpret.

You can expect my camp reports by mid-afternoons. I’ll try to answer all your questions about the 2013 edition of the Detroit Lions. Questions like:

With 11 UDFAs on the training camp roster, who will win the “Randy Award"?

How will the O-line mesh as a unit?

How athletic is Ziggy Ansah? Devin Taylor too!

Who will round out the wide receivers group?

Is Ashlee Palmer the answer at SAM? Are Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead finally NFL-ready, or are they headed for bust city?

Will RB Mikel LeShoure’s explosiveness return? Or, will he become a historical footnote?

Who will win several important depth roles at virtually every position?

Who will win the return duties?

Will my hammies hold up?

So many questions!

Are you ready for some football? Stay tuned!

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