The good: One of the big strengths of this Detroit Lions football team in 2017 was the play of the secondary, especially the play at cornerback.
Let’s start with veteran Darius Slay, who put up one of the best seasons by a cornerback in franchise history. Slay tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions, led the NFL in passes defended (26) and made both the All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams. His 26 pass defenses rank as the most of any Lions defensive player dating back to at least 1994. He now has 74 career pass defenses, the most by a Lions player since at least 1994.
View photos of the Detroit Lions cornerbacks in 2017.
On the other side, Nevin Lawson and DJ Hayden combined to give up just one touchdown all season.
Quandre Diggs was good in the slot before moving over to safety the last five games of the season. That’s when rookie second-round pick Teez Tabor saw his reps increase -- some in the slot -- and he handled the opportunity pretty well.
Rookie Jamal Agnew also got some run in the nickel at the end of the season. He joined Slay on the All-Pro team as a punt returner.
Detroit finished the season ranked in the top half of the NFL in opposing passer rating (84.1) and 20-yard receptions allowed (45).
The bad: While Lawson and Hayden only gave up one touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus stats, they didn’t provide a lot of big plays. Each did return a fumble recovery for a touchdown, but Detroit’s 19 interceptions were the third most in the NFL, and Slay was the only cornerback on the roster to record any (8). The Lions need some other cornerbacks to step up and be bigger playmakers.
Detroit’s secondary struggled in a few key contests this season, particularly against Carolina and Pittsburgh at home. A couple more plays in the backend on defense might have been the difference in those contests.
Key stat: The Lions has a 3-2 record this season when they forced three or more takeaways. Interestingly, the Lions and the New Orleans Saints were the only teams in the NFL this season that lost more than one game when they forced three or more turnovers.
Free agents: Nevin Lawson (unrestricted) and DJ Hayden (unrestricted)
Both Lawson and Hayden did a pretty decent job opposite Slay on the outside.
Like pass rushers, teams can never have too many cornerbacks, so expect the Lions to add to that group via free agency and the draft.
Detroit’s plan for Tabor in his second season will obviously play a factor in any free agency plans. Is Tabor ready for a starting role opposite Slay in year two? Does he project more to the slot? Will Diggs stay at safety or revert back to cornerback in 2018? Is Agnew ready to take on the slot role in year two? All of these are questions that will have an effect on free agency and the draft this offseason.
Draft: A couple of Big Ten cornerbacks – Iowa’s Josh Jackson and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward – head up this year’s class of cornerback prospects.
The secondary prospects in this year’s draft are considered one of this draft’s strengths.
Other players to keep an eye on as they go through the pre-draft process are: M.J. Stewart (North Carolina), Anthony Averett (Alabama), Tarvarus McFadden (Florida State) and Kevin Toliver (LSU).
MVP: There might not be an easier choice here in all the position breakdowns we do from the 2017 season. Slay had a season for the ages, and the Lions are hoping it’s the beginning of a lot of really productive seasons for him in their defense.
Most improved: Hayden could fit here. He did well with his fresh start in Detroit. But the way Tabor got better as the season progressed, and steadily came along to be a factor for Detroit’s defense at the end of the season, he gets the nod.
Because of their depth and good health at cornerback at the beginning of the year, the Lions were able to bring Tabor along at their own pace and not have to throw him into the fire. They learned what he was good at and what needed more work, and it got to a point in practice where he was making enough plays to earn a bigger role on gameday. Tabor has an extremely high football IQ, and his length is a terrific asset. It will be interesting to see what kind of player he is when he returns for OTAs in the spring.
Quotable: “I took a step back and actually got a chance to learn,” Tabor said of his rookie season. “You don’t really see it at the time, but now that I’m looking back on it, that helped me tremendously. Like, I can’t even explain how just getting able to sit back and watch certain guys and how they play and how they go about their day helped me.
“(Slay) won’t even know some of the stuff that I pick up from him. He’ll probably never know. I just sit back and watch him. He’s a special player and more importantly he’s a special person.”