Turning the Corner: Can the Lions turn a long standing problem in the secondary into one of the team’s strengths?

The Lions secondary sucked last year. They gave up too many yards in the air(9th in passing yards allowed), intercepted too few passes (T-22 in interceptions), didn’t contest enough balls (21st in passes defended), and allowed far too many passing touchdown’s (4  in Passing touchdown’s allowed). There are a few obvious answers to these struggles. Injuries to key defensive starters played a role. A lackluster pass rush failed at getting to the quarterback effectively(only generating 30 sacks, which was 29th in the league), this problem will hopefully be resolved with the drafting of hometown hero Aiden Hutchinson. But perhaps the biggest problem for the Lions was the lack of high quality and experienced defensive players. All these issues led to a defense that was an atrocious 31 in the league in points allowed. However all this is not to say that there were not bright spots, Amani Oruwariye and Tracy Walker both had breakout seasons, but it’s fair to say that there is large room for improvement going into 2022.

Tracy Walker:

The resigning of Tracy Walker was the Lions best FA decision. It was also crucial to keeping this defense on the upward trajectory. Walker played very well last season. He had a career high 108 total tackles, one interception, and six passes defended. Not to mention he also won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in the last game of the season against Green Bay, where he logged 14 tackles and the interception that ensured the Lions victory. He’s the first Lions player to be named NFC Defensive Player of the Week since Darius Slay….in 2018 (Yikes). Aaron Glenn has spoken about how well Walker has played and has been very complimentative of his ability to anchor the defense and communicate with his teammates. His three year contract worth $25 Million certainly wasn’t cheap but he’s proved himself to be a quality player that the Lions desperately need.

Deshon Elliott:
Elliott was signed in FA earlier this year to a one year prove it deal, and after Will Harris’ ‘promotion’ to cornerback he finds himself as the starting strong safety. Elliott has had some trouble with injury in the past, playing only six games last year due to a pectoral/bicep injury and missing 10 games his rookie season due to a knee injury. However when Elliott did see the field he played well for the Ravens defense. In 2020, his only full season, he logged 2.5 sacks, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, and an allowed completion percentage of just 59%. He is currently impressing in training camp and looks to be the day one starter.

Ifeatu Melifonwu:
The Lions third round pick in last year’s draft had a good start to his rookie season. Recovering a fumble in his first game in week one. He played well the rest of the time Melifonwu saw the field as well, logging another fumble recovery, three passes defended, 15 tackles, and a completion percentage allowed of 60.9%. However injuries prevented him from playing more than seven games so a position switch to safety might give him the needed playing time to develop.

Kerby Joseph:

Picked at 97 overall by the Lions in this year’s draft Kerby Joseph probably won’t see the field much unless injury befalls his teammates listed above. In his one full season as a starter at Illinois he was named to the First Team All Big Ten. Draft scouts saw him as someone with good athleticism so he fits with the type of player that Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes are going after. However, whether he has the necessary skills to play safety in Aaron Glenn’s system remains to be seen. But the Lions seem to have good luck when selecting defensive backs in the third round so maybe Joseph will continue the trend.

Amani Oruwariye:
At the forefront of this defensive revival is one of the Lions best players in the secondary, and one of the best players on defense. Amani Oruwariye had something of a breakout season last year. In his third year in the league Amani intercepted nine passes, defended 11, and allowed only a 74.1 passer rating when targeted. All of these stats are a vast improvement on his sophomore campaign and miles better than his rookie season.

Widely viewed as a steal by Bob Quinn at 146 overall in 2018, one of the few good picks made under the previous regime, Oruwariye has become a vital piece for the defense and is the undisputed CB1. He’s seen as a dependable and hardworking pro by the coaching staff and he’s only 26. If he keeps his upward trajectory the Lions could be looking at a real quality cornerback that can help propel this defense forward.

Jeff Okudah:

It’s a tale of two corners as we move on to Jeff Okudah. His career trajectory has been somewhat different from Oruwariye’s. Okudah was selected with the 3rd overall pick in 2020 and his career has been derailed by injury. In fact, he’s only played a grand total of 7 games since he was drafted, and he didn’t exactly impress when he was on the field(allowing an average passer rating of 137.1 on 57 targets in his first two years). But all this is not to say that he is a talentless player. He was a unanimous first team all American in 2019 for Ohio State and was the number one cornerback and safety prospect coming out of high school. He’s not a talentless hack who lucked out being selected as high as he was, but his struggles at the NFL level have been real. He also doesn’t appear to lack confidence, picking number 1 as your jersey number is not something you do if you don’t believe you can back it up, and he has spoken in training camp about wanting to make a real impact in his third season.

Ultimately the best thing for Okudah to do this year would be to go out and play football games, something he has been unable to do so far. However two achilles injuries in as many years raises doubts over whether or not Okudah will even be able to stick around in the NFL long enough to improve. If he does that then maybe he’ll be able to prove the doubters wrong and start contributing to this Lions defense. If not, well then the Lions will need to find another answer at Cornerback.

Will Harris:
Will Harris is one of the more interesting cases in Lions training camp currently. He started at safety during the 2021 season however he has been moved to CB to compete with Jeff Okudah. Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn has made it clear that it is an open competition between the two of them for the CB2 spot. Harris’ career at safety up until this point has been underwhelming. He has been solid at times and seriously outmatched in others. While he posted a career high in tackles, 93 combined tackles(bigger than his first two seasons put together), his coverage stats are not very good by any measure.

Through his career he has posted an average allowed passer rating of 117.5 and in 2021 he was targeted by opposing quarterbacks a career high 79 times(suggesting opposing offenses saw him as a potential weakness). So maybe a switch to cornerback is just what the doctor ordered. It provides Will an opportunity to prove himself to a new regime and potentially ensure he gets a second contract at the end of the year.

AJ Parker:
Parker has to be viewed as a steal for Brad Holmes and co. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Parker had a terrific rookie season for the Honolulu Blue. He logged 50 tackles, 7 passes defended, an interception, and a forced fumble. All of this in only 13 games! This great playmaking ability has seen Parker go from undrafted to holding a pretty much assured roster spot coming out of camp. Parker’s production to salary ratio is probably the best on the team. His 3 year contract is only worth $2.5 Million, an absolute steal for a player that has produced such a high level. Hopefully he can build upon his stellar rookie season and establish himself as a force in the secondary.

Jerry Jacobs(Injured):
Jerry Jacobs was another undrafted free agent that had a great year for Detroit. He also vastly outperformed his draft position, or lack of one. Jacobs managed 7 passes defended, a forced fumble, and an allowed completion percentage of 59%(which is pretty terrific)! He cemented himself as someone who can compete for a starting corner position. Unfortunately his 1st year was derailed by a torn ACL in week 14, which he is still recovering from. And while Jacobs says he’ll be off the PUP list “sooner than you think” a torn ACL is a tricky injury and it’s unknown when he’ll be back to 100%. That being said, whenever Jerry comes back it will be interesting to see if he can return to the form that he had last year.

2022 Predictions:
This Lions secondary has a lot of different storylines and will be interesting to watch at the very least. As far as the on field product goes there is a ton of room for hope. Great value picks in AJ Parker and Ifeatu Melifonwu will be fun to watch develop, newly established quality players in Tracy Walker and Amani Oruwariye will give this group stability, Jerry Jacobs return from injury will help bolster the cornerback room, new arrivals DeShon Elliott and Kerby Joseph should add talent/depth, and the wildcards of Will Harris and Jeff Okudah will give this secondary a high ceiling-and fans plenty to watch.

Injuries could certainly be a problem for this unit, as there are many players who have missed significant stretches or are coming off of serious injuries. But if everyone stays healthy, for the most part, and the younger players continue improving then the Lions are headed for a massive improvement on the defensive side of the ball.