Roster preview: Can DeShon Elliott hold onto a starting role all season?

Pride of Detroit

Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes has made it a habit early in this rebuild to spend much of his free agent money on high-upside players who have not yet hit their potential in the NFL. Holmes typically offers these players inexpensive one-year deals in the hopes they get a bargain and re-sign the player the following season.

Thus far, the results have been very mixed. Success stories include Charles Harris and Kalif Raymond. However, the strategy didn’t work out that well for the likes of Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Josh Hill, or Quinton Dunbar. Of course, some of those didn’t work out due to unforeseen complications. Williams suffered a season-ending concussion in Week 1. Hill retired suddenly before the season started, and Dunbar was dealing with personal issues and missed most of training camp before being cut.

Holmes continued this strategy in the 2022 offseason, handing out one-year deals to several players. Today, let’s focus on one of them who is currently lined up for a starting job. Can safety DeShon Elliott be the next success story for Holmes, or will he be another one-year player who doesn’t return?

Previously: QB Jared Goff, RB Godwin Igwebuike, RB Jermar Jefferson, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR Quintez Cephus, TE Brock Wright, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, LB Derrick Barnes, CB Jeff Okudah

Expectations heading into 2021

Entering the final year of his rookie deal with the Baltimore Ravens, there was an expectation that Elliott would take a big jump. His first two years were marred with injuries, limiting him to just six total games played. In 2020, he not only started all 16 games for the Ravens, but played pretty darn well, tallying 80 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He earned a solid 69.6 PFF grade, showing a good balance in coverage (70.6 grade) and run defense (70.2).

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was expecting Elliott to take his game to the next level in 2021.

“He really understands the defense,” Harbaugh said in August. “He understands how we organize the coverages. He understands what responsibilities he has, or what opportunities he has, to make certain calls to put us in the best situation. He’s doing a great job of that. He was good last year, and he got better as the year went on. But this year, he’s taken it to another level that way.”

Actual role in 2021

2021 stats: 6 games (6 starts): 23 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 INT
PFF grade: 65.6 (43rd out of 98 qualifying safeties — min. 250 snaps)

Unfortunately for Elliott, the injury bug reared its ugly head once again. First, a quad injury forced him to miss two games early in the year, then he suffered a torn pec and bicep ending his season early and adding to the list of his previous injuries (knee, forearm, concussion).

“The guy is so courageous,” Harbaugh said after the latest injuries. “He gutted it out through all that. He’s going to be out, so that’s a major loss for us.”

When he was out there on the field, Elliott was more of the same: a somewhat reliable coverage safety (allowed just 85 receiving yards in 2021) who is an above-average run defender when dropped into the box (66.2 PFF run defense grade).

Additionally, Elliott was considered a vocal leader on the Ravens’ defense. Here’s former teammate Marlon Humphrey explaining the impact of Elliott’s injury last year.

“I hate losing my guys, especially the guys that are really energy-setter guys, with DeShon and Marcus (Peters), really smart and aware guys. We won’t get another DeShon Elliott. We won’t get another Marcus Peters.

Outlook for 2022

Though some expected the Lions to break the bank in free agency at the much-needed safety position, the Lions took a more measured approach. They signed Elliott to a one-year, prove-it deal worth just $1.1 million and used a late Round 3 pick on Kerby Joseph.

That leaves the starting spot next to Tracy Walker wide open. Elliott got most of the first-team reps at the position during spring workouts, but he missed all of minicamp with an injury that didn’t appear too limiting (was jogging on the sidelines). That gave opportunities to players like C.J. Moore and Brady Breeze to have elevated roles.

Detroit is also toying with some positional versatility at the safety position, cross-training players like Ifeatu Melifonwu and Will Harris between both cornerback and safety, which adds even more competition for Elliott.

Regardless, Elliott is still currently projected to enter training camp in a starting role at safety. The question is twofold for him: can he stay healthy enough for an entire season, and if he does, will his level of play be good enough to hold off his competitors? Harris is well-liked by the coaches, so it’s certainly possible some of his playing time is given to him. Elliott should have an easier time fending off the likes of Melifonwu, who is still getting to know the position, and Joseph, who struggled a bit in the offseason program and only had one year of starting experience at Illinois.

If Elliott can stay healthy—which is admittedly a big if—he has proven to be an above-average starting safety in this league. If he hits that true potential, the Lions will have gotten incredible value out of that signing. However, if he continues to fight with injury or doesn’t fit as well in Detroit’s defense, he could very well fall into the category of minor free agency misses from Holmes.

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