Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Safeties.
► Current roster: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore, Godwin Igwebuike, Bobby Price, Jalen Elliott
► Short-term need: Five out of 10
► Long-term need: Nine out of 10
► Top prospects: Trevon Moehrig, Jamar Johnson, Jevon Holland
► Mid-round options: Johnson, Holland, Richie Grant
► Late-round considerations: Darrick Forrest, Damar Hamlin
► Analysis: Based on how the Lions have addressed the safety position through this stage of the offseason, you get the sense the new front office and coaching staff is excited about the young group of players they inherited.
That starts with Walker, who appeared to be on a trajectory that would have put him in the Pro Bowl conversation annually before last season’s disappointing downturn. A lot of that had to do with the previous regime changing his role to squeeze Duron Harmon into the fold, but a rough campaign like that could require a rebuilding of confidence.
But if the new coaching staff can get Walker back on track, that solves half the starting equation at least for the 2021 season. Walker is set to be a free agent next offseason.
As for the other starter, the solution is less certain.
The Lions selected Harris in the third round of the draft two years ago. Given the football smarts and physical gifts, that decision made sense, but it has yet to translate to success on Sundays. With nearly 1,000 defensive snaps under his belt, it’s now or never for him to turn the corner.
The Lions return a few other young pieces at the position. Moore has largely been limited to special teams, but he certainly merits a longer look in the back end. The team is also bringing back a pair of undrafted free agents from a year ago in Price and Elliott. The latter missed a couple stretches due to stints on the COVID-19 list, while Price showed some promise in training camp and earned a late-season practice squad promotion.
Finally, the Lions added Marlowe to the mix in free agency. He comes in on a low-cost, one-year deal one season after intercepting a pair of passes in rotational duty for the Buffalo Bills. He should be in the mix for a starting job with the Lions, while also contributing on special teams.
Still, with the lack of a sure thing opposite Walker, the draft could offer a solution. Outside of Moehrig, who figures to be selected in the back half of the first round, every other safety in this draft could be in play for the Lions.
On Day 2 of the draft, Johnson and Holland are the names to watch. With Johnson, he draws an interesting comparison to John Johnson from NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein. Remember, John Johnson was one of the Rams’ top defensive players during Lions general manager Brad Holmes’ time with the franchise.
As for Jamar Johnson, there’s admittedly not a lot of tape to work from since he played fewer than 800 snaps, but he showed tremendous promise playing as both a nickel corner and deep safety for Indiana, intercepting six passes in 20 games the past two years. He unquestionably needs to improve his tackling, but the coverage skills are tantalizing.
As for Holland, he opted out of the 2020 season but also displayed excellent ball skills in his two seasons with Oregon, intercepting nine passes from 2018-19. He’s also the more athletic of the two, showing top-tier speed, explosion and change-of-direction quickness at his pro day.
With the Lions intending to incorporate more split-safety looks as part of their new defensive scheme, Holland would make for a nice pairing with Walker.
On Day 3, Forrest possesses similar physical gifts and a comfort level defending the deeper parts of the field. It’s fair to say he’s not as disciplined as Holland in coverage, but Forrest is a more aggressive run defender and still managed to generate his fair share of turnovers, tallying six interceptions the past three seasons for Cincinnati.
There are also signs the Lions will incorporate more three-safety packages. Hamlin could be developed into an option for those looks given his success playing closer to the line of scrimmage, defending both the run and pass.