For the first time since Teryl Austin started running the Detroit Lions' defense, he returns all five starters in the secondary from the previous season. He also has some of his key reserves back.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn also went out this offseason and signed veteran help like cornerback DJ Hayden, and then drafted young talent in Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew.
All of it has Austin feeling pretty good about the current state of the secondary.
"I think the competition is really thick at most spots," he said this week. "I mean we have competition obviously at corner. We have competition at the nickel. We know who our entrenched starter at free safety is. It's Glover (Quin). But there's good competition behind him in the safety position.
"So, it's really good and I think it helps. The overall depth obviously helps you when somebody gets injured, when they do get injured, because it's going to happen. But it also helps push the guys that are fighting for positions to play their best football. And that makes you a better team."
Detroit's passing defense ranked 19th last season. They allowed opposing passers to complete 72.7 percent of their passes with a 106.5 passer rating, both league highs. The defensive line and the linebackers certainly played a part in those numbers as well. On the flip side, Detroit also ranked in the top half of the NFL in preventing big plays (20-plus yards) in the passing game, and they were the third-best defense in the league on 3rd and long (10-plus yards).
Those players in the secondary feel much farther along than they were this time last year because of the fact that so many guys are back. So much of what they do is based on communication and playing off one another. A number of players spoke on having a greater comfort level with it all.
"I think this is definitely the most talented we've been back there," starting nickel cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "I think it's the most in-tune we've been since I've been here. Everybody that I'm in the game with now, we've been playing together for at least a year or two. That's definitely helped a lot.
"You also have growth. You have (Darius) Slay going from year four to five, you've got Nevin (Lawson) going three to four and me going two to three. I just think people take for granted the growth that you get and the more that you learn each and every year."
Diggs' continued growth is an important one to touch on when talking about how good this secondary could be. He took a step back in year two after a very good rookie campaign, and ended the year on IR with a pectoral injury. Hayden was brought in to compete with Diggs in the slot. In this league, a secondary is only as good as its weakest link, and Diggs wasn't good enough last year.
To his credit, he's risen to the challenge and has had a very strong training camp so far.
"I think he's responded well," Austin said of Diggs. "Last year was really a kind of an eye opener in terms of how he played. He didn't play very well, and I'm sure if you asked him, he'll tell you that.
"But he's really looked a lot more like the player that played that first year for us, really around the ball, active, physical, doing a lot of really good things. And I think he's risen to the challenge."
Detroit's secondary has look good so far, but they'll face their stiffest competition to date Friday night with the Patriots coming to town. If they hold up well and put together a third consecutive good performance, Austin will certainly have something to be excited about.
MARTIN 'STILL ALIVE'
Sam Martin wasn't spotted out watching practice at all during training camp, and that's continued this week as the team switched gears to regular-season mode.
He remains on the NFI list after injuring his ankle back in July. At the start of camp, the Lions said via press release Martin "will miss time during the preseason."
So far that's been the case, but is he still in line to be back by the start of the regular season?
"He's still alive," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday. "He hasn't disappeared off the face of the Earth. We see him, but yeah, he's doing good."
Kasey Redfern has done a nice job filling in for Martin in the preseason, but it's hard to replace one of the best punters in the NFL. Martin set a franchise record for net punting (44.2), and was named a Pro Bowl alternate last season.
"He's coming along, making progress and we'll see what the doctors say with him," Caldwell said. "But he's been doing well."
EBRON MISSING OUT
The Lions have gone through 17 practices and two preseason games. Tight end Eric Ebron has participated in individual drills in only two of those practices because of injury. He also missed most of last year's training camp due to a severe ankle injury.
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Aug. 23, 2017.
Ebron was still productive last season despite missing most of camp, but these are valuable reps the fourth-year tight end has been missing the last three weeks.
"I think anything in that regard you always miss a little bit in terms of refinement," Caldwell said Wednesday. "You always end up starting just a little bit later in terms of where you are from a sharpness standpoint when you do miss chunks of time during the preseason.
"I do think that he gets in the swing of things pretty quickly and is able to adjust. But just the fine tuning, just like anybody that would miss. You miss that fine tuning which is key. Particularly in the passing game, it's timing and accuracy. And he's a big part of that."
Players still on PUP: DE Ziggy Ansah, T Taylor Decker and T Corey Robinson
Players still on NFI: P Sam Martin
Not practicing Wednesday: TE Eric Ebron, WR TJ Jones, T Cyrus Kouandjio, LB Thurston Armbrister, WR Dontez Ford, WR Noel Thomas, WR Dez Stewart and CB Adairius Barnes.