Twentyman's top five Lions' position battles on defense

Posted May 5, 2013

Tim Twentyman breaks down the competition battles at right cornerback, nickel cornerback, outside linebacker, backup defensive end and backup safety

Later this month, the Lions will start “Phase Three” of the offseason training program, which is when they’ll begin the first of 10 allotted OTA practices. The program will end with a mandatory minicamp June 11-13.

With each new phase of the program, the Lions are allowed to do more and more on-field work. As a result, position competitions will start to ratchet up.

The true determination of who wins a starting spot won’t come until late August -- after four weeks of training camp and four preseason games. However, the spring could put a few favorites on the board heading into camp.

Note: These competitions could change over the next few weeks with additional veteran free-agent signings.

Here’s a look at five defensive position battles to watch this spring and in training camp:

1. Right cornerback

Competitors: Bill Bentley, Darius Slay, Ron Bartell, Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Conroy Black, Domonique Johnson, Lionel Smith, Ross Weaver, Martavius Neloms

Jonte GreenCB Jonte Green

Competition: Re-signing Chris Houston was a big deal for the Lions. His return means they are now looking for someone to step into the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots, instead of a complete overhaul.

The Lions have plenty of candidates to fill the two roles after selecting Slay in the second round of last week’s NFL Draft.

“We’ve been trying to find that big corner,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. “We’ve talked about that, you know, and everybody’s looking for that guy.

“(Slay) has got a lot of that same stuff. He’s really good in press coverage, he’s physical against the run, so we like this player. He’s going to help us a lot.”

Slay (6-0, 192) will compete with Bentley, Bartell, Greenwood and Green for the starting right cornerback spot.

Early on, it seems Slay and Bentley are at the top of the list, but certainly don’t discount the veteran Bartell (6-1, 210) or Greenwood (6-1, 193) and Green (6-0, 184).

The Lions love the size of all three of those players. Bartell (1) and Green (5) started games for the Lions last year.

Bentley earned the job out of training camp as a rookie last year, and probably would have started 16 games had he not injured his shoulder early in the year and been put on IR.

Slay is a terrific combination of size and speed (4.36), but there will be a learning curve for him, as there is for all rookies.

Greenwood is the wildcard of the bunch. He didn’t play last year because of a torn abdominal muscle, but he knows the scheme having been around it for a year now. He got to learn on the fly during a three-week practice window in the middle of last season while on the physically unable to perform list. How much did he pick up?

Determining a starting cornerback opposite Houston will be one of the best competitions in training camp.

2. Nickel Cornerback

Competitors: Bill Bentley, Darius Slay, Ron Bartell, Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Conroy Black, Domonique Johnson, Lionel Smith, Ross Weaver, Martavius Neloms

Competition: One of the above-mentioned players is going to win the starting right cornerback spot. The runner up is likely to move inside in the nickel as the extra cornerback.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has a lot of options here because of the size and athleticism of his cornerbacks. Even a player like Bentley, who goes 5-foot-10, 176, plays much bigger than his size.

“Bill Bentley did both of them for us last year when he came in,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said of Bentley playing both outside and inside last season. “He just sort of had an aptitude.”

Make no mistake, the Lions drafted Slay to play on the outside. That’s where they see the best fit for him.

Slay on the outside, Bentley on the inside and a number of big athletic cornerbacks fighting to get on the field is a good problem to have, especially with the injury history for the Lions at the position.

3. Outside linebacker

Competitors: Ashlee Palmer, Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis, Carmen Messina, Brandon Hepburn, Alex Elkins, Jon Morgan

Competition: Finding the third starting linebacker to pair with Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy will be another competition to watch closely this spring and fall.

Palmer, Whitehead and Lewis are the leading names in the competition right now.

"All three of those guys bring different things to their game and it's going to be interesting to see who wins this battle," Tulloch said. "It's going to be real interesting to see how that pans out, but I know whoever wins that job will definitely hold it down."

Palmer is the veteran in the group and the only one to have started a game in the NFL. The Lions committed to Palmer even before last season ended, signing him to a two-year extension. A team doesn’t usually do that without a plan in place.

The Lions drafted Whitehead (fifth round) and Lewis (seventh) a year ago and are invested in their development, too. Whitehead might be the most athletic of the bunch. Lewis came in as Oklahoma’s all-time leading tackler on his resume.

After playing on special teams and adjusting to the pro game for a year, both Whitehead and Lewis are eager to see the field on defense this year.

But have they learned enough to leapfrog Palmer?

4. Backup/rotational defensive ends

Competitors: Willie Young, Devin Taylor, Ronnell Lewis

Willie YoungDE Willie Young

Competition: The offensive line and the defensive end groups will look the most different for the Lions in 2013.

Gone are starters Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Taking their place is Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah.

Can Young, Taylor or Lewis push one of those players to start? Probably not, but they’ll push each other to see how the rotation works out.

Schwartz and Cunningham move a lot of bodies in and out of the lineup during the game. Young and Lawrence Jackson (now with Vikings) combined for 707 snaps on defense as backups last year.

Young (6-4, 251) and Taylor (6-7, 266) are long and athletic and fit the new profile the Lions are looking for from their ends. They want size and speed, which both bring to the table.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Lewis has developed since January. A fourth-round pick last year, he played only one snap on defense. He seems to have some hybrid qualities to his game and could potentially fit at linebacker, too.

Right now it seems Jones, Ansah, Young and Taylor are the top four. We’ll see if it stays that way in training camp.

5. Backup safety spot

Competitors: Don Carey, Amari Spievey, Tyrell Johnson, Ricardo Silva, John Wendling

Competition: The Lions addressed a very big need when they targeted and signed Glover Quin in the first 24 hours of free agency. Quin and Louis Delmas form a young, athletic safety duo.

The backup role is particularly important in this case because of the injury history with Delmas. He’s missed 13 games over the last two years with knee injuries and he signed an incentive-based deal this offseason based on playing time.

One of these backups could see significant time if Delmas’ knee acts up again in 2013.

Carey made six starts at the end of last year and played very well, recording two interceptions. Schwartz praised his play earlier this season at the Lions’ Town Hall Meeting at Ford Field.

Spievey has made plays for the Lions when given the opportunity and Cunningham trusts the four-year veteran in the backend of his defense.

Silva, like Carey, started six games in 2012. He’s a sure tackler and is now entering his third year in the league. The third year is usually a big year for a player. He either takes the next step or he never will.

Wendling is considered more of a special teams player for the Lions.