Wed, 18 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Cornerbacks

Detroit Lions
26 Jan 2022, 19:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: The stats might not show it, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant did a pretty good job developing the cornerback position, especially given some of the obstacles they had to overcome.

After Jeff Okudah went down with an Achilles injury Week 1 and third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu suffered a thigh injury that landed him on IR Week 2, the Lions turned to Bobby Price at corner and then undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs, who ended up being a diamond in the rough. Jacobs allowed one touchdown in his coverage all season and was playing some really great ball before suffering a torn ACL in December. Hopefully he's back by the start of next season.

Okudah was expected to be the No. 1 cornerback this year, but that ended up being third-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who finished third in the NFL with six interceptions. Opposing passers had just a 60.2 passer rating when throwing his way, and he gave up just two touchdowns all season.

AJ Parker was another undrafted free agent who played a lot for the Lions. He earned the starting nickel job out of training camp and ended up playing in 584 defensive snaps this season.

Melifonwu returned late in the season and had a really nice game against Green Bay in the finale. The Lions love his size (6-3, 210) and versatility.

The bad: A good pass defense in the NFL is all about the marriage between the rush and cover. Detroit's 30 sacks were the third fewest in the NFL, and that's going to impact the coverage behind it. But it also goes both ways. Maybe a little better coverage in the back end leads to more sacks for the front seven?

The Lions finished the year allowing opposing quarterbacks to have a 101.0 passer rating against them. Only the New York Jets (103.2) and Chicago Bears (103.3) were worse.

Detroit was 1-3 this season when allowing an opposing quarterback to throw for 300 yards or more.

One of the bigger injuries the Lions suffered in 2021 was Okudah's Week 1. After dealing with a core muscle injury all through his rookie season, seeing him go down in Week 1 after having such a strong training camp was a big blow for the Lions. The hope is he makes it back as strong physically as he was at the time of the injury, and ready to prove himself again in year three.

A closer look at the Lions' Senior Bowl roster: Offense 2021 position breakdown: Running backs 2021 position breakdown: Linebackers

Key stat: Detroit's passing defense allowed 31 touchdowns this season. Only Indianapolis (32) and Washington (34) allowed more.

Free agents: Mark Gilbert (Exclusive rights), Bobby Price (Exclusive rights)

Gilbert played in eight games and had to play a big role in Detroit's Week 10 tie in Pittsburgh because of injuries in front of him. He played 30 snaps with three tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble in that tie with the Steelers. He's a developmental player with good size (6-1, 190).

Price, a converted safety, made two starts, but was eventually replaced by Jacobs as a starter. He became a key contributor down the stretch.

Both players will be back in Detroit next season if the Lions want them to be.

Draft: Teams can never have too many cornerbacks, and Lions general manager Brad Holmes did say in his end of the year presser he wanted to improve the edges of both sides of the football this offseason. The fact that Okudah and Jacobs are dealing with major rehabs might further Holmes' desire to grab a CB in the draft.

It looks to be a pretty good class of cornerbacks in this year's NFL Draft. The class is led by LSU's Derek Stingley Jr., who could be a top five pick, but Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati), Roger McCreary (Auburn), Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson) and Kaiir Elam (Florida) are also highly touted prospects. It's a talented and deep group of cornerbacks, if the Lions going looking for one.

MVP: Oruwariye was the clear-cut best cornerback in Detroit in 2021. The numbers speak for themselves, and Oruwariye has a drive and a work ethic that won't allow him to rest on the laurels of one really good season.

Glenn said the next step in Oruwariye's evolution as a cornerback is to be a lock-down cover man. We know Oruwariye is a good playmaker by his six interceptions and 11 passes defended this year, but can he consistently travel with the opponent's No. 1 receiver and shut them down? That's the challenge Glenn posed to Oruwariye. It's a lofty one.

Most improved: It was hard not to feel really bad for Jacobs as he clutched his knee early in the Denver game Week 14 and was eventually carted to the locker room with a torn ACL.

Jacobs went from undrafted rookie to making the roster as a special teamer to becoming a solid No. 2 starter behind Oruwariye for a good portion of his rookie season.

Opponents completed just over 64 percent of their passes Jacobs' way with only one touchdown. He also broke up six passes.

Jacobs is a fearless football player, which means he doesn't mind coming up and taking on contact. He's a pretty good tackler, and looks to have a bright future once his knee is all healed up.

Quotable: "Obviously my body is my temple, so just taking care of my body, making sure that it's right," Oruwariye said after the season of his offseason training plans. But just working with a purpose. Going out there and training and working smart. Not just working hard but working smart, working on stuff that can help me and help this team win next year.

"And then just bringing the young guys with me. I think that's going to be huge this offseason. I want to get a lot of the young guys training with each other and just building more team chemistry."

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