This is the sixth of an eight-part series previewing the Detroit Lions’ positional needs and priorities heading into the NFL draft, which is scheduled for Thursday through next Saturday in Las Vegas. Today: Defensive backs. Previously: Receivers | Quarterbacks | Running backs | offensive line | Tight ends
Projected starters: CB Amani Oruwariye, CB Jeff Okudah, CB AJ Parker, S Tracy Walker, S DeShon Elliott
Projected reservations: CB Jerry Jacobs, DB Will Harris, CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, S CJ Moore, S Brady Breeze, S JuJu Hughes, CB Mark Gilbert, CB Parnell Motley, CB Bobby Price, CB Saivion Smith, S Jalen Elliott
Notable departures: S Dean Marlowe
Best in class: CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (Cincinnati), S Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame), CB Derek Stingley (LSU), CB Trent McDuffie (Washington)
First-round possibilities for Detroit at No. 2: S Kyle Hamilton, CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB Derek Stingley
First-round possibilities for Detroit at No. 32: S Lewis Cine (Georgia), S Jaquan Brisker (Penn State), DB Jalen Pitre (Baylor), CB Kaiir Elam (Florida), DB Daxton Hill (Michigan)
Day 2-3 options: S Kerby Joseph (Illinois), CB Kyler Gordon (Washington), S Nick Cross (Maryland), CB Tariq Woolen (UTSA), CB Marcus Jones (Houston), DB Cam Taylor-Britt (Nebraska), CB Damarri Mathis (Pittsburgh) , S Tycen Anderson (Toledo), S Sterling Weatherford (Miami Ohio)
Late round fits: S Smoke Monday (Auburn), CB Decobie Durant (South Carolina State), CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart (USC), S Bubba Bolden (Miami Florida), S Reed Blankenship (Middle Tennessee State), S Tre Sterling (Oklahoma State), Antwan Collier (Florida A&M)
Breakdown: The Detroit Lions were forced to shuffle their defensive backs at an alarming rate in 2021. And while that was tough, they might have found a couple of pieces for the future. The safety room looks like one of the team’s most significant needs, while it’s easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel concerning cornerbacks.
The Lions are banking on cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs returning from serious injuries, and then hitting another level. Okudah was the third overall pick two years ago, and Jacobs was one of the top undrafted rookies last season. After a career season, Amani Oruwariye is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He had six interceptions in 2021. Oruwariye took steps forward in Year 3 and is a young leader in that youth-infused room. Ifatu Melifonwu could be a key piece to this puzzle. The third-round pick impressed down the stretch after missing most of the season with a quad injury. Melifonwu’s length and unique athleticism have the Lions thinking they might have their matchup piece of the future.
It’s also hard to get a feel for what could happen at inside cornerback outside of AJ Parker. Jacobs didn’t see much work inside. Melifonwu spent most of his playing time through his limited first season on the outside too. Parker started seven games and held down the nickelback spot more times than not. Will Harris is another candidate to see looks there, bouncing between safety and cornerback in his “cafety” role.
It’s easy to see why some analysts are thinking cornerback at the top of the draft from the outside looking in, with all of those questions, though.
CB1 is between Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Derek Stingley, and those are the only two in the mix that early in the order. Gardner is a lengthy shutdown cornerback that didn’t get thrown at much. The three-year starter never allowed a touchdown in coverage. That’s ridiculous. Stingley has struggled to stay available through the past couple of seasons. But his freshman campaign has been hard to forget because he looked like the next big cornerback prospect. Pro Football Focus remains ultra-high on Stingley, ranking the LSU cornerback second among all players.
Baylor’s Jalen Pitre is one of those versatile names worth tracking at the back of Day 1. He played 601 snaps from the slot last season, allowing a passer rating of 55.2 when targeted. Pitre was more than willing against the run, leading all defensive backs with 47 run stops per PFF. There are also intriguing options on Days 2 and 3. It’s hard to ignore Tariq Woolen, Marcus Jones and Cam Taylor-Britt on Day 2. Taylor-Britt looks like a physical and versatile option in the defensive backfield. The Lions haven’t been shy to move their pieces around on the back end, so it’s easy to see them falling for someone like the Nebraska defensive back. Jones is an explosive playmaker widely regarded as the best returner available. He’s undersized but is a dynamo of a prospect.
Woolen is one of, if not the top athlete at his position. He’s 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. He ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash, then hit a 42-inch vertical. Woolen and a healthy Melifonwu would give Aaron Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant two fascinating young cornerbacks to pair with Okudah, Oruwariye, Jacobs and Parker.
Starting safety Tracy Walker re-signed for three years this offseason. Brad Holmes then signed DeShon Elliott from the Baltimore Ravens. The back of the defense could use another starter-level player for the next phase of this rebuild. Walker is a rock-solid and dependable player. He’s been the team’s leading tackler in two of the previous three seasons. He’s also a vocal leader for the defensive backs. Elliott looks like an upgrade on the other side of Walker. But he’s missed 36 games in four seasons due to various injuries. His one-year contract is also very team-friendly and shouldn’t stop the team from drafting a safety.
Kyle Hamilton is getting all the buzz at the top of the draft. Hamilton is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound unicorn/safety that looks ready to delete space and tight ends. But this safety class is not a one-hit-wonder. Lewis Cine, Jaquan Brisker and Daxton Hill are legit prospects that could be there at the back of Round 1. Let’s talk about some of the other safeties, focusing on ones in the mix at Picks 32 and 34. We’ve discussed Hamilton here, here and here in recent weeks.
Cine measures 6-foot-2, 199 pounds, with elite showings in the 40-yard dash (4.37 seconds), split drills and the broad jump. The safety was a key piece on the back of Georgia’s national championship defense. He had 73 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception and nine pass deflections. PFF reports he missed only 11 tackles on 159 career attempts. Brisker was one of the best coverage safeties, forcing six incompletions per PFF. He had 63 tackles, six tackles for loss and two interceptions in 2021. There aren’t too many concerns with Brisker’s athleticism, either. The 6-foot-1 safety ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash and was strong in every other metric. Hill is a familiar name from his time in Ann Arbor. The once highly-touted recruit has desirable length and enough wheels to keep up with receivers at the next level. Hill was a first-team all-Big Ten player in 2021.
One name to watch as the draft nears is Sterling Weatherford of Miami (Ohio). He’s 6-foot-4, 224 pounds and was under the microscope at the Senior Bowl. The four-year player had 66 tackles, two for loss, one sack and two interceptions last season. He could be a hybrid safety-linebacker and an able special teams body out of the gates to watch in the later rounds.