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There's an old football adage that goes, "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." The implication is that not having a clear-cut top dog carries quite the negative connotation.
To adapt that adage to the Lions cornerback situation, Detroit has six potential starting corners. That means they sorely lack a top dog, but it also makes for quite the offseason positional battle.
Veterans Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis started on the outside for the bulk of 2013, but there are questions with both.
Houston is out until at least training camp in July after recent surgery on his problematic toe. It was that same toe which was a common scapegoat for his lousy '13 campaign, where he was ranked 96th by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in their cornerback rankings.
Mathis played quite respectably for a guy plucked off the street in preseason, finishing 27th overall in those same PFF rankings. He showed his wheels still rolled just fine, and he still has the instincts that made him a stalwart in Jacksonville for many years. However, he's 34 and didn't get a sniff on the open free-agent market.
Darius Slay is expected to step up and earn a starting role after being the team's second-round pick in 2013. He earned a starting gig last preseason, too, but gave it away with unacceptably awful play early in the year. The game simply looked too fast for him.
Later in the year, Slay got a second chance. The Mississippi State product played better, using his size and speed more to his advantage. He's built upon that in OTAs, as reported by Justin Rogers of MLive:
Second-year cornerback Darius Slay is playing with a high level of confidence. In one-on-one drills, he fell a step behind undrafted rookie Andrew Peacock on a double-move, but closed the gap to break up the deep pass in the end zone.
Learning how to recover when initially beaten is a critical skill for cornerbacks, and was something that Slay really struggled with as a rookie. That's a great sign. So is this, in continuation from Rogers' fine reporting:
On the first play of seven-on-sevens, Matthew Stafford challenged Slay deep down the sideline on a throw to Calvin Johnson, but the young corner stuck in Johnson's back pocket, turned his head and nearly intercepted the slightly under-thrown ball. Johnson became the defender, separating the ball from Slay at the last possible moment.
Another player to watch is Cassius Vaughn, who started several games for playoff teams in Indianapolis the last two years. It would be a surprise if Vaughn earned a starting role, but a pleasant one.
Bill Bentley has been the slot nickelback the last two years. Under Jim Schwartz, that was a starting role. How much new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin goes nickel as a base package remains to be seen.
His aggressive style of play seems a good fit for Austin's philosophy, which is nicely detailed by MLive's Kyle Meinke from earlier this month.
Fourth-round rookie Nevin Lawson also plays with that aggressive style and swagger. While he projects primarily in the slot, it's not inconceivable that a strong preseason could get him some run outside too.
I would have included Chris Greenwood in this battle royal too, but he's missing OTAs as he recovers from hernia surgery. The third-year project from Albion is now much more in a fight to simply make the team than to compete for a starting spot.
Prediction: Slay winds up being a passable No. 1 corner, while Mathis' experience earns him another season as the other outside corner.
Bolder prediction: We will not see Houston play another snap as a Detroit Lion. That's pure conjecture on my part.