Training camp preview: Cornerbacks

Posted Jul 16, 2014

Tim Twentyman examines the question marks surrounding the cornerback unit heading into training camp.

On the roster: Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson, Cassius Vaughn, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green, Aaron Hester, Mohammed Seisay

Key loss: Chris Houston

Making the cut: Slay, Mathis, Bentley and Lawson

Bill BentleyCB Bill Bentley (Photo: Detroit Lions)

On the bubble: Vaughn, Greenwood, Green, Hester and Seisay

Best competition: Bentley vs. Lawson

Bentley's had his ups and downs as the Lions primary nickel cornerback the last two seasons. He has all the right tools to be pretty good inside. He’s fast, physical and plays bigger than his frame. His style of play has led to some injury issues, however, which has held him back more than anything during his brief career.

Lawson, the team’s fourth round draft pick this past year, has a lot of the same skills as Bentley, but packs on a few more pounds and is stronger.

The Lions tested Lawson out both on the outside and in the nickel this offseason, and it’s likely he plays both early in camp as they figure out the best spot for him.

With Slay and Mathis solidly holding down the starting spots on the outside at this point, Lawson’s best chance for some early playing time might be trying to take Bentley’s job in the nickel.

2013 Stats
Rashean Mathis 15 47 0 15 0 0
Darius Slay 13 34 0 5 0 0
Bill Bentley 13 29 0 5 0 0
*Nevin Lawson 14 57 5 13 0 1
Cassius Vaughn 16 30 3 6 0 1
Chris Greenwood 3 6 0 0 0 0
Jonte Green 9 9 0 3 0 0
+Aaron Hester 0 0 0 0 0 0
*Mohammed Seisay 12 9 0 1 0 0
+didn't play in 2013        *college statistics

Twentyman’s take: The Lions have a lot of faith in second-year player Darius Slay, which is why they didn’t reach in the draft at No. 10 once Justin Gilbert was off the board.

New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has simplified things for Slay and it's going to allow him to play a lot more man coverage, which is his strength. Slay looked a lot more comfortable this offseason and he’s going to have to be one of the most improved players on this team if the Lions are going to be better in the secondary.

“Obviously, we all know and realize that he does indeed have skill and ability," Austin said of Slay this offseason. "The guy can run. He can flat run, he can jump. He’s got all the physical tools that you’re looking for.

“He’s just lacking a little bit of experience."

The Lions had only five cornerbacks on the Week 1 roster last year, but six is more likely this time around.

The last two spots on the roster are really up for grabs between Vaughn, Greenwood, Green, Hester and Seisay.

Vaughn is a veteran player with starting experience and he played well over the spring. He’s quickly become a vocal leader on defense and it’s important to have a few guys like that around.

Greenwood just might be the most physically gifted of the bunch, but he can’t stay healthy enough to show it. He suffered a second sports hernia injury in as many years this offseason and missed most of the offseason.

This is a make-or-break camp for Greenwood. The Lions liked what they saw from him when he got an opportunity to play at the end of last year, but at some point potential has to turn into reality.

Green, a former sixth-round pick, has filled in adequately when needed, but he too needs to prove he can be a long-term contributor and not just a stand in.

Just one offseason removed from signing Houston to a five-year, $25 million deal, the team released him this offseason. He had a down year and the team wasn’t convinced he’d return to form after an offseason toe surgery.

There will be pressure on Slay to fill the void right away.

There are a lot of question marks with this group and a lot of eyes will be on this unit when training camp begins. It was a real weakness last year and that can’t continue to be the trend if they’re going to have success against the passing attacks of Green Bay and Chicago.

By the numbers:

2: The total number of interceptions recorded by Lions cornerbacks last year (Houston, 2)

90.94: Opposing quarterbacks' passer rating when the Lions defense blitzed in passing situations a year ago

1,805: Yards after the catch allowed by the Lions defense in 2013, the 10th fewest in the NFL

Quotable: “I think we have some nice, young talent, but it’s young. It doesn’t have game experience, so it’s really, right now it’s kind of hard to tell how they’ll react when we get into game-like situations.

“So, that’s what we are doing here by putting the pressure on them, the tempo, all those things trying to get them into as many game-like situations as we can so we see how they respond. So far, some of the young guys are doing some good things, but they’re still young.”

--Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin speaking this offseason about the cornerback position