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Who Will Win Detroit Lions' Cornerback Battle?

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Who Will Win Detroit Lions' Cornerback Battle?
Jose Juarez/Associated Press

The Detroit Lions are actually stocked well at every position. Every position except for that pesky cornerback spot, that is. 

The Lions have been trying to find a legitimate starting cornerback since 1957. Dre Bly had a solid couple years, but can you name another who had as much success? Or a full career?

Exactly. It's the glaring gap on a roster that otherwise has playoff contender written all over it. So what now?

 

Who's in Contention?

First, let's run down who has a chance at both slots.

Unfortunately, that's not a typo. There's a real possibility that Chris Houston won't be ready to go for the season.

Houston suffered through a toe injury during the tail end of last season, and it appears the problem hasn't abated. After his recent toe surgery, there's no definitive time table for his recovery. 

Detroit Lions' Outside Cornerbacks
Name Height Weight Years Experience 2013 PFF Grade
Chris Houston 5'9" 188 lbs 7 -8.1
Darius Slay 6'0" 192 lbs 1 -7.0
Rashean Mathis 6'1" 195 lbs 11 5.8
Cassius Vaughn 5'11" 195 lbs 4 -3.7

www.ProFootballFocus.com

If Houston is healthy, he'll be the Lions' top corner. If he isn't healthy, he's still their top corner, but he may not be physically able to get on the field.

On the other side, Darius Slay will battle veteran Rashean Mathis to claim what should rightfully be Slay's. Mathis had a nice rebound season in 2013, but expecting a 34-year-old to post a similar performance is a stretch.

Cassius Vaughn is a bit of a wild card here. He has experience (19 career starts), but his snap count dwindled as the season wore on, and it's highly unlikely that he legitimately enters the discussion. 

 

Who Has the Upper Hand?

For the sake of argument, we'll assume Houston will be ready to go and will take his place atop the depth chart. Otherwise, both Mathis and Slay will be the starters. There's no fun in that analysis so we'll focus on the spot opposite Houston.

Mathis will start training camp with an edge by virtue of his experience and solid showing last season. The new coaching regime won't have the personal experience that Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham had, but the tape will back up his 5.8 grade, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

However, experience can be a nice way to say old. That's why Slay should be able to upend the vet.

Slay spent a part of the offseason with Rod Woodson. The Hall of Famer didn't spend too much time breaking down technicalities and essentially told Slay to trust his instincts. Basically, Woodson's major piece of advice was to "just play ball," as Slay put it to Mlive.com's Kyle Meinke

It's easy to recognize Woodson's observation on film. Every move Slay makes looks just a bit slow, as if he's thinking about what to do instead of doing it. Those little adjustments can make all the difference for a position that relies on instinctual reaction. 

Remember, Slay isn't a late-round draft pick that Detroit was hoping to develop. This is the same kid that came out of Mississippi State with a ton of talent. 

The entire defense is learning new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's aggressive scheme. That type of aggression and physicality, as Woodson noted, should free up Slay to get his head in the game and engage with the wide receiver. He'll be able to use his solid 6'0" size to lock up receivers at the line and has his 4.36 speed to recover should he get beat at the line.

Mathis has an inch and a few pounds on Slay, but it appears that this defense fits Slay's preferred style and demeanor. Assuming everyone gets and stays healthy, expect to see Slay and Houston lining up outside with Mathis as support. That's a solid rotation for the team's weakest position, and just adequate play from the cornerback spots could be the final piece of Detroit's playoff puzzle.

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