Finding the right combinations at cornerback starts today for the Lions

Posted Jul 27, 2012

When the Lions decided to release cornerback Aaron Berry on Monday -- which head coach Jim Schwartz described as a “hard” football decision on Thursday but an “easy” decision from a team standpoint -- they made the cornerback competition in training camp suddenly a lot more interesting.

When the team went out and signed free agent cornerbacks Justin Miller and Drew Coleman to compete with fellow free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey and third-year Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith and a crop of rookies that includes third-round pick Bill Bentley, the Lions suddenly had a lot of moving parts at the position.

The competition to fill one of the starting cornerback spots opposite Chris Houston, and ultimately decide the pecking order at the position, is likely to be one of the best competitions in training camp when the Lions begin practice later today.

“There are a lot of players that it’ll be a great opportunity to get reps and show what they can do,” head coach Jim Schwartz said Thursday of the competition at cornerback. “We’ll have plenty of candidates there.”

Rookie cornerback Chris Greenwood will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Miller is likely to compete more as a kick returner than at cornerback. But it’s an open competition between the rest of the cornerbacks starting this afternoon.

“We signed a free agent in Lacey, he did some good things (in the offseason)," Schwartz said. "Lacey is an experienced starter in the NFL.

“Those other guys we brought in (Coleman and Miller) are experienced starters. They are guys who had ups and downs that are still young developing players. We drafted some exciting young players.

“We’re going to coach them as hard as we can. We’re going to get them as many reps as we can. We’re going to put them in preseason games and we’re going to make the best decision after that on who the best combination is after that and put those guys out there. We have a plan for it. It’s one of our major objectives in camp.”

The Lions are likely to move a lot of pieces around from practice-to-practice to try and find different combinations and players who play well together. Just like an offensive line, a good secondary is usually only as good as it’s weakest link (especially in today’s NFL).

“Our secondary is always pretty fluid,” Schwartz said. “The OTAs that you guys (media) saw, we rotated guys. The OTAs you didn’t, we had a lot of different combinations. I think one of the things we all recognize is injuries are a fact of life in the secondary. It’s one of the most injured positions in the NFL. It’s one of those things that it’s more important how you play as a group. We found that out at the end of last year. We did a poor job of responding to those injuries when we lost players like Louis Delmas and Aaron Berry and Chris Houston.”

Schwartz said his early focus in training camp when it comes to the cornerback position will be moving players up and trying a lot of combinations to be better prepared than they were last season in the event of injuries.

“It might be a guy who’s been running with the third group and put him up there (with the first team) and run because communication and working together, you need to be prepared for all those options,” Schwartz said.

The Lions have plenty of candidates to fill some holes and guys will have to make the most of opportunities afforded them. That includes rookie third-round pick Bill Bentley, who has as good a chance as anyone to earn a starting role.

“Bill Bentley, made some significant strides,” Schwartz said. “If you were to watch his first practice -- it happens a lot in the Senior Bowl -- the first practice they don’t look so good and by the end of the week they are playing very well. He was that same way. You look for that in young players. Players that can make the adjustment to a jump in competition pretty quickly. He still has a long way to go, but we saw some really good signs from him.”

Lacey is a versatile player with experience on the outside and in the slot on the nickel. Coleman played the slot almost exclusively with the Jaguars last season.

“Coleman is very experienced in the slot, which is important,” Schwartz said. “We play about half of our snaps on defense in nickel. You need a player like that. You need players like that and we have an opportunity for them.”

It’s likely to be weeks before the Lions know who’ll start opposite Houston and who’ll come in on nickel packages as the third cornerback. But as Schwartz said Thursday, finding that right combination is one of the big objectives in camp starting today.