The Detroit Lions training camp is almost here and we close out the defensive position battles in our roster preview series by taking a close look at the safety group. Safeties play a vital role in the Lions’ split-zone scheme and the organization made a few key moves this offseason to hopefully lock up the future of the position.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out:
Setting the table
Last season, the Lions initially kept just four safeties: Tracy Walker and Will Harris were the starters and were backed up by Dean Marlowe and C.J. Moore. Jalen Elliott was elevated from the practice squad in Weeks 7 and 8 for depth, and was eventually signed to the active roster in Week 10.
Things were relatively straightforward through two-thirds of the season, but the final third was filled with a shifting of players and their roles.
The Lions opted to only keep one nickel corner on their roster last season, and when AJ Parker was injured in Week 11, they turned to Harris to fill the void. The following week, Parker landed on injured reserve and Harris would remain in the slot for the next three weeks, with Marlowe stepping into the vacated starting safety role. In Week 14, Walker was ruled out due to COVID protocols, but with Parker still out, they opted to keep Harris inside and promote Moore to the starting lineup next to Marlowe.
Parker would return to the slot in Week 15, but in a cruel twist of fate, the Lions lost Jerry Jacobs to an ACL injury, creating a hole at outside corner. Even though Walker was still not cleared to return, the Lions shifted Harris to outside corner and kept Moore and Marlowe in starting roles. Additionally, with depth issues among the defensive backs, the Lions claimed Brady Breeze claimed off waivers. Walker would return in Week 16, sending Moore back to a reserve role, and that’s how things would stay the remainder of the season.
When the offseason began, the Lions only had Harris and Breeze under contract. Their first big move was to re-sign Walker to a three-year, $25 million contract, solidifying at least one starting role. Next, they re-signed Moore to a one-year deal, further boosting their depth. Additionally, Jalen Elliott was also re-signed, but he never made it to spring camp, as he was released to make room for the Lions’ UDFA class.
The Lions also went outside of the organization to make three additional moves. First, they claimed JuJu Hughes off waiver during the playoffs and then exercised an ERFA tender on him. Next, they signed DeShon Elliott to a one-year contract, and the expectations were he would immediately challenge for a starting role. Finally, the Lions used pick No. 97 in the draft to select Kerby Joseph, who has long-term upside at the position.
When spring camp arrived, the depth chart became clearer and several players shifted roles.
The first notable change was Harris was taking all his reps at outside corner and appeared to no longer be in the safety mix. Defensive back coach Aubrey Pleasant has insisted that Harris remains a “defensive back” and someone they feel comfortable with at multiple spots:
“I view (Harris) as a defensive back. I think the skillset that you all saw last year throughout our season is part of the reason why he’s able to move around and plug-and-play at different spots. His growth has happened with being really fundamental at corner, while still understanding the savvy part of the game that comes from safety. I think that’s what he does best. We just have to continue to find ways and roles as a staff to put him in the best position to have success.”
While the Lions want to stay flexible with Harris with him no longer taking safety reps, it cleared a path for DeShon Elliott to slot into the starting lineup next to Walker.
But coaches added another wrinkle into the mix and gave safety reps to second-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. Drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft, Melifonwu played his rookie season at corner, but the 6-foot-3, 205-pound defensive back has always shown safety-like traits, so cross-training him at both spots made sense.
Now, Melifonwu was injured for most of the spring, so it’s too early to label this a definitive positional shift, and coaches have suggested he could be more of a matchup player capable of lining up at corner and safety. Here’s safeties coach Brian Duker on Melifonwu getting safety reps:
“It was a good idea (to give him safety reps) because of Iffy’s really unique skill set and his ability to cover a whole bunch of different positions really well… Let’s say it’s a really good tight end, typically the safeties match up with the tight ends more often, right? So it’s easier for him if he knows the safety communications, it’s kinda of a seamless transition. It’s, ‘OK, Iffy, you’re just going to operate as the safety right now and get you in the best matchup for us.’ That’s why you want to do it, so that way you can kind of utilize him the best.”
With Harris and Melifonwu in hybrid defensive backs roles, that leaves the Lions with six pure safeties, and based on history, they’ll likely keep no more than four of them.
Walker is definitely occupying one of the starting roles, and while Elliott is currently in the other, nothing is guaranteed and he will have to battle to keep his role.
DeShon Elliott broke his forearm as a rookie in Baltimore, returned and won a starting role in Year 2, then got bit by the injury bug again in Year 3 (injuries to his bicep and pectoral) and only played in six games in 2021. That injury history was likely a factor in why the Lions only invested in him for one season because when he is healthy, he can be an impactful player. He is the clear current starter but he should be looking over his shoulder throughout the season at the rookie behind him.
Kerby Joseph is a ball-hawking safety who has range for days and is best suited as a single-high in a two-safety system. He is still raw—only one year starting in college—but he already showed his knack for being around the ball in spring camp, making several pass breakups, and jumping a slant round for an interception. Duker said during OTAs that Joseph is putting in the work and it’s paying off:
“I would say Kerby is actually ahead of where I thought he’d be, to be honest with you. I was really pleasantly surprised with him. With him, the biggest thing is just learning the verbiage. It’s so much bigger of a playbook than he’s really used to. So now understanding all the calls that are really involved and kinda getting your toolbox together is something we talked about a whole bunch.”
C.J. Moore is one of the Lions’ best special teams players and maintains a key role as punter Jack Fox’s personal protector on punts. But he showed last season, that he can hold down a starting role in a pinch and shouldn’t be overlooked. Here’s Duker talking about Moore’s value:
“We really don’t talk about C.J. enough. C.J. is really a useful asset for us. In addition to being a great special teams player, he’s a really good veteran, a really good leader, but has always been ready when his number is called.”
Brady Breeze was originally claimed for depth purposes, but he has the will and determination to make an impact. A legit potential sleeper for the position, Breeze has shown he can contribute on special teams, and if he can take a step on defense, he could stick around.
JuJu Hughes was part of the LA Rams 2020 UDFA class when Lions general manager Brad Holmes was their director of college scouting. That familiarity helped open the door for him to make the 90-man roster in Detroit, but with only 37 defensive snaps over two seasons, he’ll need to elevate his game to climb the depth chart.
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott, Kerby Joseph, and C.J. Moore. Of note, we had Melifonwu and Harris included under a corner designation.
For me, the pecking order is pretty clear. Walker is the top dog, Elliott is his starting mate, Joseph is going to play and will challenge to start with time, Moore is a veteran leader and special teams dynamo, Breeze is the sleeper, and Hughes has some work to do. If they keep four pure safeties, I see no reason to change what we originally decide upon.
So two questions, Jeremy. First, are you still with me, or am I oversimplifying? And second, Do you still think they keep four safeties with two potential hybrid defenders in Harris and Melifonwu also available?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think the pecking order is about as clear as any other position on the roster, but that second question is the key. With so many pieces capable of moving around the secondary, has the Lions roster evolved beyond the need for just a special teams ace like C.J. Moore? I think the answer to that question will depend on how far along they feel Kerby Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu are. If the Lions are comfortable enough that those players can start in a pinch and contribute on special teams, I do think it’s entirely possible the Lions drop down to just three “pure” safeties.
Do you feel the same or are the special teams skills of a guy like Moore that important and irreplaceable?
Erik: Yeah, I’m with ya. As much as I enjoy special teams play and how players’ contributions there lead to roster spots, I think this roster is moving past the point of keeping players who don’t contribute on offense or defense in some way.
That being said, I do think Moore is unique in what he does and can play on defense, but he’s not irreplaceable—and I think that is all part of Holmes’ roster design.