Most of the conversations about the Detroit Lions these days pretty much follow the same template. The team is much improved, but the secondary will be their Achilles heel.
At practice this week, I took a closer look at the secondary to see if the concern is warranted.
While I believe the secondary has improved over the previous year, breakdowns in coverage were frequent.
Today, I will review the cornerback position, and will look at the safety position at a future date.
The Lions currently list 10 cornerbacks on their roster. Looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each will give a better idea as to what to expect from then in the 2010 season.
Aaron Berry is 22 years old, 5'11", 180 lbs, and experience wise, a rookie.
I don’t know who measured Berry at 5’11" but that can’t be right. He is much shorter than that. Berry, a three-year starter at Pitt, signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent.
What he lacks in height Berry makes up for with his speed, quickness, and aggression.
At his pro day, Berry was timed in the high 4.3s in the 40. That is one of the fastest times among the cornerbacks.
While fast, Berry’s lack of size is a concern. He can be out-muscled by stronger receivers. He will also have trouble with tall receivers who can easily shield him from the ball.
Berry’s chances of making the roster took a hit when he recently injured his hamstring. He has been held out of practice since he first injured it on Friday. He is currently listed as day-to-day.
Injured or not, Berry’s chances of making the roster were slim at best. His lack of size is a real concern in the pass happy NFC North. If forced into action, he would be most effective playing over the slot receiver.
Prediction: He is a candidate for the practice squad.
Dre Bly is 33 years old, 5'10", 188 lbs, with 12 years of experience.
Dre Bly was a late free agent acquisition by the Lions. This is his second tour of duty with the team.
Lion fans that are expecting the Dre Bly circa 2003 are going to be disappointed. At 33 years old, Bly is considered old for the position he plays.
While never blessed with blazing speed, Bly still has enough quickness and speed to be an effective cornerback. Technically, his ability to flip his hips to turn and run with receivers is his best asset.
Bly’s game, however, is not based on being technically sound. He is a gambler who will give up a big play now and then but will get his share of interceptions.
Bly has been practicing as the nickelback. He has looked pretty good in camp. Recently he started practicing with the second unit but that could be more of a product of injuries and not as an indication of future plans.
Prediction: Bly will be the nickelback unless the starters flounder.
Jonathan Hefney is 25 Years old, 5'9", 185 lbs, with one year of experience.
Jonathan Hefney was signed the day after the 2009 season ended. He is versatile and played both safety and cornerback in the CFL in 2009. This is his first year in the NFL.
Hefney lacks the ideal size and speed to be a top-notch cornerback. Coming out of college, he was timed at 4.53 in the 40. The Lions list him as a cornerback, but during OTAs he played a lot of strong safety.
With his lack of top end speed, Hefney’s future in the NFL has to be at safety.
Prediction: Incomplete. I have not seen him play enough to make a judgment. I will watch for him in the preseason and update his status when I have a better grasp on it.
25 years old, 5'11", 178 lbs, with four years of experience.
He has spent most of the preseason with the unenviable task of playing opposite Calvin Johnson. While that makes for a long summer, Johnson will be the most talented receiver he covers all year.
Physically, Houston is very gifted. He has all the skills to be a top corner. Even when he gets beat, his makeup ability gives him a chance to get back into the play.
Houston’s issues are mental. He has trouble recognizing plays. He is vulnerable to double moves and will guess wrong when trying to jump a route.
Recently, word surfaced that Houston was demoted to second string. This was a temporary demotion that resulted from a mental lapse while getting badly beat by Johnson. It was by no means an indication of how he has performed so far in training camp.
Houston has been one of the better defensive players. He has held his own, as much as can be expected, against Johnson. As mentioned earlier, he has had his rough moments, but so would any cornerback that that has to play against Johnson every day.
Houston is entering his fourth year in the league. This is usually when cornerbacks burst on the scene and it would be a big lift for the Lions if this was the case here.
Prediction: No. 1 corner unless something unforeseen happens.
Eric King is 28 years old, 5'10", 190 lbs, with six years of experience.
Eric King was injured early in the 2009 campaign and only played in five games for the year.
King’s contributions early in his career have been on special teams, where he has excelled. As a cover corner, King lacks the top end speed needed to cover outside receivers. His best attribute as a corner is his ability to stay with receivers on double moves.
Prediction: King will see a lot of time on special teams. He can also be the dime corner
Paul Pratt is 25 years old, 5'10", 185 lbs, with one year of experience.
Paul Pratt was recently cut by the Lions and resigned because of mounting injuries.
Prediction: Will be cut once the Lions get some of their injured corners back.
Amari Spievey is 22 years old, 5'11", 195 lbs, and a rookie.
A third round pick this year, Amari Spievey has been hurt most of training camp.
Reports out of OTAs were discouraging. He was having trouble in coverage.
Prediction: Cornerback is a very complicated position to play. It is one where repeated reps are important for player development. Unless he gets back in the field soon, he will not contribute much this year.
Jonathan Wade is 25 years old, 5'11", 200 lbs, with four years experience.
If all goes according to plan, Jonathan Wade will be a starting cornerback for the 2010 season.
Wade is one of the most physically gifted players on the team. When talking about speed, quickness, agility, and physical play, he grades high on all of them. When I was watching him in camp, he looked good, but he was inconsistent.
I had trouble understanding how a player of his ability was available until I heard Tom Kowalski on WDFN this morning. He said something very telling. He said that if you can infuse Wade with Dre Bly’s confidence, you would have a top notch corner.
This should be encouraging to Lions’ fans because this is an opportunity for Lion coaches to earn their money. Coaches can’t teach speed but coaches can put a player in a position to succeed. If they manage to do that Wade’s confidence should increase.
Prediction: Starting cornerback with star potential
Dante Wesley is 31 years old, 6'1", 215 lbs, with eight years of experience.
Dante Wesley is still listed at Cornerback, but has been taking reps at safety as well. He was asked to move to safety by the coaching staff because of injuries.
Wesley is known for his special teams play and lacks the physical skills to be any more than a backup in the secondary
Prediction: Special teams player
Jack Williams is 25 years old, 5'9", 183 lbs, with three years of experience.
Jack Williams is a skilled but undersized corner. He was claimed of wavers by the Lions in 2009 after being released by the Denver Broncos.
Williams has never started a game in the NFL. He was placed on injured reserve in November of 2009. At this point he remains on the PUP list.
Prediction: Incomplete, hard to tell at this point because he is yet to get on the field.
The top three cornerbacks on the roster—Bly, Houston, and Wade—are not stars. They will, however, make enough plays to keep the Lions in games. The Lions really need one more player to step up and be that fourth good corner.
If the Lions improved defensive line lives up to expectations, than the cornerbacks will have a better chance at succeeding.
The issue is that teams know that the drop-off after those three is dramatic and will take advantage of that. Look for teams to force the lions into nickel or dime coverage by using multiple receiver sets.
That said, I am of the opinion that secondary will not be as weak as many fans predict. The top two corners have the skills to be good cornerbacks, it is up to the Lions’ defensive brain trust to ensure they get the most out of them.