Why Detroit Lions are going young at cornerback: ‘Hard to ignore those guys’

Detroit Free Press

Collectively, they are barely of drinking age, and if they want to take to a bye-week trip together, they better be prepared to pay the rental car upcharge.

But when it comes to football, the Detroit Lions are betting age is nothing more than a number at the cornerback position.

The Lions have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and that is especially true at cornerback, where the six corners on their 53-man roster average 23 years old.

Their starters are 22-year-old Jeff Okudah, in his second NFL season, and 25-year-old Amani Oruwariye, the old head of the group in Year 3.

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Undrafted rookie A.J. Parker, 23, is expected to start at slot cornerback. Another rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu, 22, is the top backup. And 23-year-olds Bobby Price, who switched from safety to cornerback last month, and Jerry Jacobs, another undrafted rookie, are in line for roles on special teams.

Combined, they’ve appeared in 36 NFL games, the equivalent of just over two seasons, made 23 starts and have four interceptions.

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“We weren’t looking for the youngest guys possible,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I mean, certainly, if you have talent and you’re young and hungry, I mean, it’s hard to ignore those guys. That’s what we feel like we’ve got a lot of. And we’ve said it before, we were looking for the right guys for us and the way we want to be built.”

In Year 1 of a rebuild, that means going young at cornerback — and putting up with the growing pains that are bound to come with it.

The Lions do have one veteran corner on their roster, Nickell Robey-Coleman, a practice squad stash on his fourth NFL team. And they tried to add experience to what they knew would be a relatively young room at various points this offseason.

Quinton Dunbar signed as a free agent in April, but missed most of training camp for injury and personal reasons and was cut in August. Corn Elder was supposed to man slot duties, and when he suffered a calf injury this summer, the Lions signed Robey-Coleman for insurance.

But Parker outplayed both in camp to win the starting job, Melifonwu’s spot was secure as a third-round pick and the upside of Price and Jacobs was too much to ignore.

There are drawbacks to being so young. But the NFL has become a young man’s game, and the Lions will face a few similarly young receiving corps in the first few weeks (albeit with more seasoned quarterbacks throwing the ball).

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The San Francisco 49ers, their Week 1 opponent, have two second-year players, two third-year players, one fourth-year player and veteran Mohamed Sanu in their receiving corps. Rookie quarterback Trey Lance could see snaps in relief of starter Jimmy Garoppolo.

“From a coaching perspective, you’re going to have some growing pains sometimes, you will,” Campbell said. “But the important thing is that when mistakes are made, they’re not repeated. And if you do that and they stay young and hungry and they’re eager and continue to put the work out, I think we have coaches that can develop them, good things will come sooner than later. But I would rather make that move than I would some guys that maybe know what’s going on, but they’re past their due. They don’t have it anymore. It’s not worth it. That’s just, that’s where we’re at.”

The Lions feel good about going young in the secondary — starting safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris are on their rookie contracts, too — not just because of the talent they’ve assembled but because of the coaching staff tasked with its growth.

Secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant is a rising star in the coaching ranks who Lions general manager Brad Holmes called “one of, if not the, best DB coach that I’ve been around.” And defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback as a player who had a 15-year NFL career.

Already, the coaches have gotten more out of Price and Parker than most expected when they signed in May, they helped make Okudah one of the best turnaround stories of the summer after a rough rookie season and they oversaw Oruwariye’s impressive training camp.

Next up is the regular season, where the real test of their youth awaits.

“Again, we didn’t go out and say, ‘Look, we have to be the youngest secondary. We have to go young,’ ” Holmes said. “But yeah, it is a projection of youth that we went about and we feel really, really good about. Hey, look, when we signed Jerry Jacobs and A.J. Parker as undrafted free agents, we didn’t go in there saying, ‘Yep, this guy’s going to be the nickel.’ No, it was like, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ But credit to Aubrey and his teaching, coaching and AG as well.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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