The Detroit Lions Revamped Their Secondary This Offseason, But Did They Do Enough?

    Although they added Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and others to the defensive backfield, the Detroit Lions could still use more depth in the secondary.

    The Detroit Lions Revamped Their Secondary This Offseason, But Did They Do Enough?

    After fielding one of the NFL’s worst secondaries in 2022, the Detroit Lions made a concerted effort to improve their defensive backfield this offseason. Through targeted signings and a Day 2 draft pick, the Lions have added more talent to their cornerback and safety depth charts. But Detroit still might have weaknesses on the back end as the 2023 season approaches.

    The Detroit Lions’ New-Look Defensive Backfield

    Take a look at nearly any defensive metric from a season ago, and it’s clear the Lions had to reinforce their secondary this offseason. In 2022, Detroit’s defense ranked 23rd in pass DVOA, 27th in dropback success rate, 30th in dropback EPA, and 31st in net yards per pass attempt.

    The Lions got started in free agency by signing former Steelers corner Cameron Sutton to a three-year, $33 million deal. Sutton offers inside-outside versatility but projects to play out wide for Detroit. A former third-round pick, Sutton was a role player for Pittsburgh until becoming a full-time starter in 2021. He’s fresh off the best campaign of his career after allowing 5.3 yards per competition and a 65.3 passer rating in 2022.

    Ex-49er Emmanuel Moseley landed a one-year pact from the Lions as he recovers from a torn ACL. Moseley has been a competent corner when on the field, but he’s missed significant time over the course of his career. A knee issue and a high-ankle sprain cost him games in 2021, while a concussion and a hamstring strain were problems in 2020.

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    Detroit also took advantage of C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s surprisingly weak free agent market by signing him to a one-year, $6.5 million deal that came in far below his contract projections. Gardner-Johnson played primarily safety for the Eagles last season, but Justin Rogers of the Detroit News suggested that CJGJ “is expected to see plenty of snaps in the slot” for the Lions.

    After adding Sutton, Moseley, and Gardner-Johnson, Detroit felt comfortable moving on from former No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah, who had finally flashed early in the 2022 campaign but struggled down the stretch and was eventually benched. The Lions sent Okudah to the Falcons, garnering only a fifth-round pick in return.

    In the draft, Detroit traded up to secure Alabama defensive back Brian Branch, who ranked as the No. 16 player on PFN’s Industry Consensus Board but fell to the 45th selection. There’s some overlap between Branch and Gardner-Johnson, as both are safeties by trade who can spend ample time in the slot. As such, Lions general manager Brad Holmes said Branch “might not (make) an immediate impact.”

    Safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Amani Oruwariye are gone, but between Detroit’s new additions and holdover defensive backs Kerby Joseph and Tracy Walker, the Lions are in a much better place in their secondary than they were last season. Still, it’s possible Detroit will wish it had more depth in its defensive backfield as the year unfolds.

    The Lions Could Still Use Another Cornerback

    The Lions’ 2023 draft class will be debated for the foreseeable future. But the wisdom of taking a running back like Jahmyr Gibbs or an off-ball linebacker like Jack Campbell in the first round aside, it is surprising that Detroit didn’t target help at outside corner in Round 1.

    Cornerback, like offensive line, is typically viewed as a weak-link position. Teams don’t necessarily have to be elite in the secondary, and it’s possible to get by without a true No. 1 corner. But depth is critical — clubs might go through five or six cornerbacks in a season, and it’s important to have replacement options when injuries strike.

    Moseley isn’t exactly a bastion of health. He’s targeting a summer return, but we’ve seen ACL recoveries go awry in the past. It wouldn’t be a total shock if he’s not ready for the start of the season, and it’s possible he could suffer a setback as the season progresses.

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    Additionally, Moseley is only on a one-year deal. If he plays well in 2023, he could move on for a better offer in free agency. If he struggles, he won’t be in the Lions’ plans anyway.

    That’s why it was so curious for Detroit to eschew cornerback in the first round of the draft, especially given the options available on the board. The Lions may have pounced on Devon Witherspoon if he were available at No. 6, per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, but the Illinois corner went one pick earlier to the Seahawks.

    Still, Detroit had plenty of choices, even after trading back to No. 12. Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes, and Maryland’s Deonte Banks were all up for grabs.

    Selecting one of those cornerback prospects would have given the Lions optionality. Gonzalez, for example, wouldn’t have had to play immediately if Moseley was ready for the season. But he would have been on the depth chart in case of emergency and given Detroit a long-term asset at a premium position.

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    Instead, the Lions desperately hope that Moseley stays healthy and produces in his first season in the Motor City. If not, Detroit is looking at Jerry Jacobs and journeyman Jarren Williams as the next players up on the depth chart.

    Although the Lions already added two corners in free agency, they might need to go back to the open market to find more depth. While options are limited at this point, Eli Apple — who overlapped with Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn with the Saints — could make sense as a CB4.

    The Lions identified their secondary as a weakness this offseason, but they only took half-measures to address it. A first-round cornerback could have helped solve both short- and long-term problems for Detroit, and the Lions may end up regretting their course of action in the draft.

    Dallas Robinson is an NFL analyst for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Dallas’ work here and follow him on Twitter: @dallasdrobinson.