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2023 position breakdown: Safeties

The good: Second-year safety Kerby Joseph totaled four interceptions this season, his second straight four-pick season to start his NFL career. He's Detroit's first player since Bobby Watkins (1982-83) to produce at least four interceptions in each of a player's first two career seasons. Opponents completed less than 60 percent of the time throwing Joseph's way this season with a 58.5 rating. Joseph was credited by Pro Football Focus for not allowing a touchdown in his coverage area this season. Joseph's had a terrific start to his career and is one of the young core players for Aaron Glenn's defense.

Ifeatu Melifonwu, who was moved from cornerback to safety last year, was inserted into the starting lineup Week 14 and really took off down the stretch in his third season. In Week 15 vs. Denver, he posted two passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble. In a Week 16 matchup in Minnesota, Melifonwu defended two passes, posted 2.0 sacks and had the NFC North title-sealing interception. The following week in Dallas he recorded his second pick of the season. He's a weapon as a blitzer and pass rusher and is expected to play a much bigger role to begin the season next year in his fourth year.

The Lions were dealt a blow early in the season when safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson tore a pectoral muscle Week 2 in a loss to Seattle, but he was able to return late in the season, which is a huge credit to him and his rehab process. He was an impact player in the playoffs with 12 tackles and an interception. The three-safety rotation the Lions had after he returned gave them good depth at the position and the ability to be creative with some different skillsets in the back end of their defense.

Detroit's run defense was top two in the NFL and the safeties played a role in that. Detroit only surrendered five rushes of 20-or-more yards, tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, the 1,509 rushing yards allowed by the Lions this season ranks as the fourth fewest rushing yards Detroit has allowed in a season.

View photos of the Detroit Lions safeties from the 2023 NFL season.

The bad: Losing Gardner-Johnson Week 2 was a blow because Melifonwu wasn't viewed at the time as a player who was ready to come in and start. Glenn turned to veteran Tracy Walker, who was a starter the previous two seasons. Walker is a good player and team leader, but in his six starts teams had a 117.9 passer rating throwing his way with three touchdowns. He was eventually replaced by Melifonwu in the starting lineup.

As a team, the Lions allowed 69 completions of 20-plus yards, which were the most in the NFL. They finished 27th against the pass.

Key stat: Detroit's defense allowed the most 3rd & long (10-plus yards) conversions in the league this season with 17. Opponents converted in those situations one in four tries against Detroit (25.4 percent), the highest percentage in the NFL.

MVP: Kerby Joseph

Over the last two seasons, Joseph and Broncos safety Justin Simmons are the only NFL players to record at least eight interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Joseph finished third on the team in tackles (82), led the defense with four interceptions and was second behind Brian Branch (13) for the team lead in passes defended with 11.

Most improved: Ifeatu Melifonwu

Melifonwu (6-3, 210) has settled into a versatile role at safety after making the switch from cornerback midseason last year. He was one of three defensive backs in the NFL to produce at least 3.0 sacks and two interceptions this season, joining Antoine Winfield Jr. and Kyle Hamilton. Opposing passers had a 75.3 passer rating when throwing his way.

Free agents: C.J. Gardner-Johnson (unrestricted)

It will be interesting to see what the Lions decide to do in terms of pursuing and potentially having to pay up to keep Gardner-Johnson in Detroit with Melifonwu taking the step forward he did.

Gardner-Johnson has a nose for the football, recording an interception in his first game back from the pectoral injury Week 18 vs. Minnesota. He also had one in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. We'll have to see what Gardner-Johnson will command on the open market and if the Lions are in a position to match with some other priority re-signings on offense coming due this offseason.

View the best photos of the 2023 season as chosen by Detroit Lions team photographer Jeff Nguyen.

Draft: As a third-round pick in 2021, Melifonwu is entering the final year of his contract so it's not out of the realm of possibility the Lions look to add a young safety to the group to develop. The injury rate at defensive back is one of the highest in the NFL, so having good depth at those spots is critical.

This isn't considered a really strong safety class, however. Not a single true safety made NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah's list of the Top 50 players in the draft. The first safety off the board in draft analyst Chad Reuter's mock draft was Georgia's Javon Bullard to San Francisco at No. 31.

Quotable: "My biggest takeaway from this season is that if you're not willing to learn and get better than you are getting worse," Joseph told after the season. "I've kept that mindset every year I've played football. I have to find a way to learn and get better."

Where does Joseph want to improve his game the most going into his third season?

"Probably I would say right now is tackling and just finding more ways to the ball. I got four interceptions last year and four this year. I felt like that was the standard last year and I feel like every year I have to beat the standard."

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