The Detroit Lions: Erik Coleman and the State of the Safeties

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The Detroit Lions: Erik Coleman and the State of the Safeties
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Erik Coleman was drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 NFL draft by the New York Jets.

Coleman started every game for the Jets over the next three seasons, and by all accounts was a solid contributor both on and off the field.

Jets fans called him “Coolman.” He earned a reputation as a consistent tackler whose coverage skills were average at best.

Coleman was slowed in 2006 after an appendectomy, but returned to form in 2007.

In 2008, Coleman was due $3 million from the Jets and was released as a salary cap casualty.

Atlanta signed Coleman (the Washington State product) as a free agent to a three-year deal plus an option year.

Coleman recorded three interceptions in 2008, his career-high. He maintained his reputation as being very solid against the run and a hard hitter despite his 5’10”, 200-lb frame.

In 2009, the Falcons drafted safety William Moore in the second round of the draft. Moore was groomed as a starting safety heir apparent.

As Moore progressed, Coleman’s playing time was reduced. In 2010, Coleman saw action in only four games. The writing was on the wall when Atlanta declined to pick up Coleman’s $3 Million option for 2011.

A square peg if ever I saw one. Paying $3 million for a safety in a backup role was too rich for Atlanta’s tastes, so he was released.

The Lions GM Martin Mayhew pounced on Coleman, who does his offseason training in Miami with QB Drew Stanton. We may never know if Stanton dropped a dime on Mayhew, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

What does Coleman bring to the Lions secondary? It might be better to approach this question from understanding what safeties the Lions currently have and the diversity of their skill sets.

Louis Delmas is a run-stopping stud who loves to blitz the QB. Delmas is mediocre in coverage and misses an inordinately high percentage of tackles. Delmas is best in a SS role where he can play in or near the box on nearly every play.

Delmas had a groin muscle surgically repaired after the 2010 season. I’d expect to see him playing at a higher performance level in 2011.

Amari Spievey is the sophomore third-round pick who actually graded out higher by Pro Football Focus than Delmas. Spievey is the best coverage option and can develop into a very good FS center fielder.

During Weeks 10-12, Spievey hit a rough patch. He made only 18 of 24 tackles. An above-average safety should miss around 10 percent of his tackles.

Spievey should be much improved with some offseason conditioning and film study.  Getting proper position to make plays is Spievey's weak spot.

Randy Phillips was the UDFA pickup in 2010 that surprised everyone in training camp. As with most rookies in the secondary, Phillips seemed lost at times. Phillips did display the instincts required of the position and was retained as a project.

Phillips spent most of his 2010 season on the practice squad. In the three games where he was activated, Phillips was on the field for only 13 snaps as a dime back.

Phillips’ size and speed make the project worthwhile, but he will have to show marked improvement through understanding his assignments and coverage. Film, film and more film for Phillips.

C.C. Brown was probably the biggest disappointment on the team. The stats bear this out, as Brown was ranked 66th in Pro Football Focus' safety rankings. Brown, in 13 games made only 35 tackles, but missed 10.

Safeties missing tackles put points on the board for an opponent.

Many (me included) expected Brown to be released immediately after the 2010 season. It didn’t happen. Brown is an unrestricted free agent who will have to show quantum improvement to make the team.

John Wendling saw only 59 snaps in four games. He made seven tackles (missing none) in 2010.

Wendling, is an unrestricted free agent. He will compete for a backup role in 2011 if he remains a Lion.

So how does Erik Coleman fit into this safety unit?

The Lions like to use a balanced defense primarily and could use some “one cover” sets on passing downs.

Coleman and Delmas should be interchangeable in the balanced looks and can be platooned to keep the legs fresh in the fourth quarter. They have skill sets that are very similar. Both have primary run defense responsibilities. Neither will scare anybody in coverage.

The Lions will keep no more than five safeties on the roster, but keeping only four seems most realistic.

If the Lions sign a big name free agent like Michael Huff (Oakland), Quinton Mikell (Philadelphia) or Eric Weddle (San Diego), a four-safety rotation would be the likely outcome.

There are a couple of UDFA’s that the Lions might consider signing, such as DeAndre McDaniel (Clemson) and Deunta Williams (UNC).

It’s likely that we will see a new face or two added through free agency. It really depends upon how the Lions evaluate the group as a whole.

Delmas, Coleman, Spievey and Phillips look to be the favorites headed into 2011. Wendling and Brown will fight for a spot that may or may not be there.

In conclusion, the addition of Coleman represents an upgrade that leaves the group with a rather average appearance on paper.

 

Mike Sudds is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Mike is also an analyst and correspondent for DraftTek.com.

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