The times are changing in Detroit.
According to Tim Twentyman of the team's official site, the Lions released Houston on Friday, citing his "significant medical procedure" as the primary reason for terminating the five-year, $25 million contract he signed last spring.
“Chris Houston underwent a significant medical procedure this spring,” the Lions' statement said. “Both parties felt that the best course of action at this time is to release Chris and allow him to rehabilitate his injury away from the Club. The Lions appreciate Chris' contributions over the years and wish him the best in his recovery.”
Houston had toe surgery in May and was unavailable for any of the team's organized team activities or minicamps to start this summer.
The Lions will now go forward with veterans Rashean Mathis and Cassius Vaughn and youngsters Darius Slay, Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson at the cornerback position.
Houston's release comes as a surprise, but there were warning signs as well.
He had arguably his worst season in Detroit last season, when teams routinely picked on him in the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Houston allowed 48 catches for 834 yards and five touchdowns in 2013. He gave up 100 or more yards in a game three times, and in eight different games, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating over 100.0 when targeting him.
Overall, Houston gave up a completion percentage of 60.8, while receivers against him averaged 17.4 yards per reception. Opposing quarterbacks finished with a passer rating of 107.4 when throwing against him. His coverage grade finished 14th worst among 110 qualifying cornerbacks last season.
|Chris Houston: 2013 Stats|
|Yards per Catch||17.4|
|Yards After the Catch||276|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
As a whole, the Lions gave up the 23rd most passing yards in the NFL last season, despite a sometimes suffocating pass rush.
Current and future health were also factors. Houston missed four games in 2013 with various lower body injuries, including one major problem with his toe, which eventually needed surgery.
According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, the Lions weren't certain Houston's toe would be ready for training camp.
Roughly a month after his surgery, Houston—a 54-game starter for the Lions over the last four seasons—received a pink slip.
Detroit will now need big jumps from a few younger cornerbacks.
Slay, a second-round pick last season, has both good size (6'0") and speed (4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He struggled early in his rookie season but came on late, and he'll now be expected to start alongside Mathis in the base defense.
A 10-year veteran, Mathis outperformed Houston for most of last season. He allowed a completion percentage under 50.0, and quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 83.9 when targeting him in 2013.
But any good secondary needs to be more than two-cornerbacks deep.
|Lions Remaining Cornerbacks, 2013 Stats|
|*With IND Source: Pro Football Focus|
Lawson was a fourth-round selection this past May. He is just 5'9" with 31.5" arms, but Detroit could easily shift him inside to play the slot cornerback role in the nickel package.
Bentley hasn't developed into a starting-quality player since the Lions took him in the third round in 2012. Last season, he allowed a 72.7 completion percentage on 55 targeted passes and a passer rating of over 100.0. Bentley will likely be asked to play in dime roles.
Jonte Green and Chris Underwood are also returning third-year players at cornerback. Neither played more than 200 snaps a year ago.
Vaughn is the wild card. The 26-year-old has five interceptions, two defensive scores and 19 passes defended over four NFL seasons. He's struggled for most of his career in coverage, but he's fast and experienced—two traits that should give him a chance at playing time in a depleted Detroit secondary.
One thing is for certain: The Lions will need one or two plays to elevate their games in the absence of Houston.
In charge of covering No. 1 receivers for most of his time in Detroit, Houston will cede control to a group that will again need to handle a division full of top receivers on its own.
The NFC North is littered with dangerous pass-catchers and quarterbacks.
In Chicago, Jay Cutler throws to two behemoth receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Marshall caught 14 passes for 218 yards and two scores against the Lions last season, while Jeffery had two 100-yard games.
The Green Bay Packers have Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, arguably the game's best quarterback. Nelson is averaging 67 catches for 1,107 yards and 10 scores over the last three years, while Cobb has emerged as one of the NFL's best playmakers at the slot position.
Defenses have to be able to cover at cornerback to compete in the NFC North. The Lions will enter 2014 with serious question marks at the position.
Even healthy, Houston might not have been the answer at cornerback. Although he was the only Lions cornerback to have an interception in 2013, he was also exposed at times for a defense that should have been better defending the pass.
However, the Lions are now banking on development from the youngsters and consistency from the veterans to make up for losing their most heavily used player at cornerback over the last four seasons.
It's a calculated gamble, but also far from a death blow for the Detroit defense.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.