Allen Park — An NFL season is a war of attrition, which long ago led to players and coaches adopting the mantra “next man up.” Unfortunately for the Detroit Lions, the saying has become a necessity just one week into the 2021 season.
After losing their starting left tackle Taylor Decker during the first week of practice — a difficult blow to one of the roster’s few strengths, forcing a shuffling of the deck up front — the Lions saw starting cornerback Jeff Okudah suffer a ruptured Achilles tendon and top wide receiver Tyrell Williams land in concussion protocol.
Next man up, indeed.
In the secondary, that appears to be rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu. The Lions were ecstatic when they landed the supersized cornerback out of Syracuse at the end of the third round, but in an ideal world, they probably anticipated having more time to develop him.
At the start of the offseason program, Melifonwu was shaping up to be the fifth corner on the depth chart. But by the end of training camp, he had climbed to No. 3, following the team’s decision to part with veterans Quinton Dunbar and Mike Ford.
During camp practices and the preseason, Melifonwu looked to be a quick study. He played more than 70 snaps in the three exhibition contests, including 50 in coverage, but was targeted just four times, giving up a pair for receptions for 24 yards.
It’s a small sample size, but it’s hardly problematic when opponents are throwing away from a cornerback.
In the season opener last week, the team had planned to sprinkle Melifonwu into the game plan, giving him a controlled taste of regular-season speed. But Okudah’s injury in the fourth quarter obviously altered the plans. Still, even in his limited playing time, the rookie nearly had an interception on a deflected pass and recovered a fumble in the closing seconds that gave Detroit a chance to tie the game.
“I think that helped because I feel like regular season to preseason is a little bit different, especially with No. 1 receivers,” Melifonwu said about the experience. “I think me going out there a little bit definitely helps moving forward.”
To be clear, the Lions haven’t committed to naming Melifonwu the starter. Coach Dan Campbell has said converted safety Bobby Price and undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs are in the mix, as well. There’s also the rumored possibility Dunbar is added back to the mix. But signs point to Melifonwu remaining the safe bet.
“Basically everyone has to be ready to go, just a next-up mentality,” Ifeatu said. “We don’t know who it’s going to be, but we all have to prepare like we’re going to be the starter.”
Of course, it’s easy to be concerned about what happens next. Even though defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has said throughout the offseason that you can’t be afraid to play young players, it’s less than ideal to have lean on a rookie against Green Bay’s superstar tandem of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver DaVante Adams, on the primetime stage of Monday Night Football ,no less.
But the soft-spoken Melifonwu is showing no signs of sharing the concerns or fear outside observers might have.
“It’s not daunting,” he said. “It’s exciting. It’s just a chance to prove yourself, that’s what it is.”
On the other side of the ball, youth once again dominates the conversation when it comes to potentially replacing Williams, the most-accomplished veteran in the room.
The corps will look to lean on the confidence they built in the closing minutes of the loss to the 49ers, when the passing game came to life while nearly pulling off an improbable 24-point rally.
“Like you guys saw at the end of the game, with Tyrell out, (it’s a) next man up mentality,” rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “And we’re already, in the receiver room, we prepare everyday like we’re going to play. I think just going into each and every day into practice knowing injuries happen and things can happen in the game, just going in making sure you’re in your playbook, you know all the plays so that if something does happen, you’re ready to go.”
St. Brown played extensively in the season opener, but had a relatively quiet afternoon, catching two passes for 24 yards. He nearly had a touchdown early in the contest, but quarterback Jared Goff overthrew him while open down the sideline.
Goff didn’t overthrow Quintez Cephus in the fourth quarter, hitting the second-year receiver on a fade route for a 2-yard touchdown, followed by the pair connecting again on a 2-point conversion.
Cephus finished the opener with three catches for 12 yards, including the scoring plays. He had another long grab wiped out because he stepped out of bounds while running his route, resulting in an illegal touching penalty.
If Williams isn’t cleared, Cephus stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of playing time, where he can continue to prove he merits more snaps once the group is back to full strength.
“Making plays and showing that I can be a playmaker is really going forward, that’s what I want to be,” Cephus said. “That’s who I want to be.”