2014 Combine Preview: Cornerback

Posted Feb 14, 2014

In his introductory press conference, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin summed it up when he said, "you can't have enough corners"

The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off next week in Indianapolis and it'll give teams like the Detroit Lions a chance to get real measurables and medical reports on the more than 300 prospects expected to take part.

It's an opportunity for teams to get a lot of information for their draft boards and start to put names with needs.

In the days leading up to the Combine, we'll take a look at some of the Lions' biggest needs this offseason, what prospects could fill those spots and what questions need to be answered in Indianapolis next week.

Why do the Lions need another cornerback?

Chris HoustonChris Houston (G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

I'll just go ahead and let new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin answer this one.

"My feeling is this. In the NFL, you can't have enough corners," Austin told reporters last week.

"I think as the league has changed, I think you have to try to get, if you can, a bigger cornerback -- a guy that can match up with the big receivers, a guy who has some physical toughness to him that's not afraid to tackle and a guy that has great ball skills."

The Lions have a mix of veteran players like Chris Houston, and a few young up-and-comers like Darius Slay and Chris Greenwood, but there are a lot of question marks there.

Are the Lions sure some of these young cornerbacks will take a big step forward in 2014? Sometimes it takes time with young cornerbacks.

Was Houston's down year in 2013 just a fluke or are there bigger issues there?

Good pass defense in the NFL is a combination of rushing the quarterback and covering behind it. If a team isn't efficient at one they aren't likely to be at the other.

That being said, the Lions gave up 14 passing plays of at least 40-plus yards this past season, fifth most in the NFL.

They also gave up 187 points outside of the red zone, which was the most in the league.

Detroit cornerbacks had just two interception in 2013. Both came from Houston.

Where does the roster stand?

The Lions have a few young cornerbacks who are now entering their third year in the NFL. At year three, the belief is cornerbacks should start to figure things out and coaches should see a huge jump in their development.

Bill Bentley, Greenwood (exclusive rights) and Jonte Green are all entering year three for the Lions. Together, they have 44 games and 17 starts between them. We'll find out this year if there's a future there.

In his introductory press conference last week, Austin talked about Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was a former first-round pick, and how it took him until his third year to really take off.

Austin was comparing Smith to the Lions' Slay, who was a second-round pick last year. Slay has tremendous physical tools -- like Smith -- but was inconsistent as a rookie.

"He was a lot like Darius," Austin said of Smith. "He kind of flashed and has some tremendous talent. He would flash, but he didn't quite play as consistently as you'd like. But then he finally, like a lot of them, sometimes it just clicks. It takes reps it takes time and when it does, he starts improving in certain areas and everything else picks up."

Slay should get every opportunity to earn a starting spot in year two.

Houston was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract last offseason after a very good 2012. His play wasn't nearly as good in 2013, however. Houston appeared to lose his confidence, which is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a cornerback in this league. Can he get it back or is it gone for good?

The most consistent cornerback the team had last year was veteran Rashean Mathis, who is an unrestricted free agent. Do the Lions bring him back and let him compete for a job in training camp? That could depend on other options they seek via free agency. Those meetings are going on in Allen Park this week.

Is it better to seek help via the draft vs. free agency?

The best scenario for the Lions is probably both.

The Lions are a team ready to win now and bringing in a young, veteran cornerback with a few years of experience under his belt gives the defense the best opportunity to immediately get better.

The cornerback position is one of the hardest for college players to adjust to in the NFL. We talked about Jimmy Smith above. Recent high draft picks like Dee Milliner (Jets) and Morris Claiborne (Cowboys) have gone through the same growing pains. There's no guarantee a high rookie draft choice can come in and help right away.

There are a few veteran free agent cornerbacks – Sam Shields, Charles Tillman, Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis and others – who could come in and potentially have more impact.

Those players are more expensive, however, and it's unclear how much cap room the Lions could have to pursue some of those players.

Who could fit in the draft?

Austin said the criteria for what he's looking for in a cornerback is big with ball skills.

The consensus two best cornerbacks in the draft are Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. Both players are right around 6-foot tall. Gilbert is listed at 199 pounds and Dennard 189.

Gilbert is faster and probably a little more athletic than Dennard, but Dennard is a polished technician, fundamentally sound and looks to play a more physical brand of football than Gilbert.

The Lions have the No. 10 overall pick and Gilbert and Dennard are probably the only two corners the team would consider that high pre-Combine.

After Gilbert and Dennard there are a number of players who could make sense late in the first round and early in the second, where the Lions currently pick at No. 45.

Jason Verrett (TCU) and Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State) are among that group, but both players are under 5-foot-10. Based on Austin's comments, it's unclear if they'd fit into the Lions' plans.

Ohio State's Bradley Roby (5-11), Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy (6-0), Florida's Marcus Robertson (5-11), Utah's Keith McGill (6-3), Clemson's Bashaud Breeland (6-2) and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller (6-0) could all be names that fit in day two and three of the draft.

What do the Lions want to learn from the position in Indianapolis?

  • Are Gilbert and Dennard head and shoulders above the rest of the group and worth the No. 10 pick? Which one fits Austin's scheme better?
  • Austin mentioned how ball skills will be important in his evaluation of the position. Too many times Lions cornerbacks are in a position to make a play but don't, for whatever reason. Can the Lions find a ball hawk? Is there a player in Indianapolis who combines size, speed and just the natural knack for playing the football?
  • Is any young cornerback they might select better than the four youngsters they already have in Slay, Greenwood, Bentley and Green?