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2023 training camp preview: Safety

On the roster: Tracy Walker, Kerby Joseph, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Brian Branch, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Brady Breeze, Brandon Joseph

Table inside Article
Name Games Tackles TFL INT PD Sacks
Tracy Walker 3 19 1 0 1 1.0
Kerby Joseph 17 82 0 4 8 0.0
C.J. Gardner-Johnson^ 12 67 5 6 8 1.0
Brian Branch* 13 90 14 2 9 3.0
Ifeatu Melifonwu 10 14 1 0 2 0.5
Brady Breeze 2 0 0 0 0 0.0
Brandon Joseph* 10 30 0 1 2 0.0

^with another team *college stats

Best competition: How do Gardner-Johnson and Branch fit into the mix?

The expectation is for Walker and Joseph to start at the two safety spots with Gardner-Johnson playing a majority of his snaps in the nickel, but defensive backs coach Brian Duker knows he has a lot of versatility in his room with Gardner-Johnson's ability to play safety as well. In Philadelphia last year, Gardner-Johnson played 208 snaps at slot corner, 443 at free safety and 202 at box safety.

Branch, who the Lions selected in the second round of this year's NFL Draft, was a three-year starter at Alabama playing the 'star' nickel position in Nick Saban's multiple-scheme defense lining up in the slot and playing in the box. He was the only FBS player with 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss and at least two interceptions last year. The NFL game will continue to slow down for him and as it does it will be harder and harder to keep him off the field.

Melifonwu, whose early career has been plagued by injury, is feeling much more comfortable after making the move from cornerback to safety last year. He played pretty well in the spring. With him, it's all about staying healthy, but his size, range and cover skills could allow him to play in some packages.

View photos of the Detroit Lions defensive backs heading into training camp.

Twentyman's take: Getting Walker back is big for this defense. He's one of the defensive leaders and he was missed last year after going down with an Achilles injury Week 3. He's another 100-plus tackler to add to that group alongside linebacker Alex Anzalone.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn now has really good depth at safety and the ability to develop some creative packages utilizing a diverse skill set at the position with multiple players being able to play both safety spots, nickel and in the box.

The Lions only played Dime defense (six defensive backs) about three percent of the time last season. The league average was around 10 percent. I wouldn't be surprised if that percent goes up this year with their new-found versatility and depth in the secondary.

Detroit ranked 30th in pass defense last season, allowing 245.8 yards contest through the air on average, so it's no surprise general manager Brad Holmes made reshaping the secondary his biggest priority this offseason. The additions of Gardner-Johnson and Branch, along with the return of Walker plus Joseph entering Year 2 after a terrific rookie campaign, should go a long way in helping Detroit be much more consistent in the back end of their defense in 2023.

By the numbers:

3rd: Joseph is only the third rookie in NFL history since at least 1999 to total four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

4: Detroit was tied with Kansas City, Philadelphia and Buffalo with four red zone takeaways in 2022.

6: Interceptions for Gardner-Johnson last season in 12 games, which tied for the league lead.

25: Percentage of 3rd and 10-plus conversions the Lions' defense allowed last season, which ranked 29th in the league.

60: Completions of 20-plus yards for Lions opponents last season. That was the third most allowed in the NFL.

Quotable: "He's a second-year player, right? He doesn't realize how good he is, truthfully," Gardner-Johnson said this offseason of Joseph. "He is one of the best young safeties in the game. He already has, but when he really understands that you ain't out here by yourself anymore, you've got help, you've got veterans around you, you can learn the game a little bit more. You're going to see a whole different Kerby Joseph."

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