Ever since Bryant Westbrook went down in the midst of a Pro Bowl-to-be season in 2000, the Lions have struggled to find quality cornerback play. This situation looks like it's unlikely to change for 2009.
Leigh Bodden: When they traded Shaun Rogers for Cleveland CB Leigh Bodden and a third-round draft pick, it was hoped that the young (27) veteran could step in and cover opposing teams' top recievers. While the Tampa 2 defense relies mostly on short zones--and asks its corners to step up and play run defense--Bodden is more of a traditional man-to-man cover corner. Still, with his size (6'-1". 193), it was hoped that he'd be able to make a natural transition to the play of a Tampa 2 corner.
. . . not so much. Bodden seemed lost early on, neither playing well in coverage nor in run support. Bodden quickly became a favorite target of the naysayers, especially as the huge hole in the middle of the defense became obvious. However, in the middle of the season, the light started to go on. Against Washington he had 8 tackles (7 solo), and in the first Minnesota game he had his sole interception (down from six in 2007). That, by the way, was the ONLY interception registered by ANY Lions defensive back. That is . . . that is horrible.
At the end of the season, it was obvious that Bodden disliked the defensive system he'd been shoehorned into--and the coaching staff who did the shoehorning:
“You've got to be unpredictable, and I feel like sometimes we were kind of too predictable in what we were calling -- and that costs you,” Bodden said. “If the offensive coordinator can pretty much tell what you're about to run, then he's going to beat whatever you have.”
Amen, Leigh. Amen. I still believe that Bodden is an extremely talented and confident young corner, and will almost certainly be a better starter in the new system than anyone else we can acquire, either through free agency or the draft. However, Bodden will be due an $8.6 million roster bonus in March, and it seems unlikely that the Lions would want to exercise that bonus. Most are treating his departure as a foregone conclusion, but don't be so sure--cornerback is probably the thinnest position on the roster. Bottom line: a talented young cover corner in his prime, horribly misused in the T2, and probably out the door for contract reasons. Should be excellent in 2009 whether he's here or somewhere else.
Travis Fisher: Fisher is yet another constant target of Lions fans' ire, yet he's quite good at the things Tampa 2 corners must do: he's stout against the run and provides good short-zone coverage skills; in 2007 he had 78 tackles (60 solo) and two interceptions. The problem is that he has neither the athleticism nor the deep speed to cover opposing teams' #2 wideouts. In 2008, he had a very slow start, missed a few games with a knee injury, and then had a very slow finish as well. I see Fisher as a good nickel back or situational short-zone corner, a guy who can tackle and jump slants. However, the guy is regularly scorched on medium and deep routes. I would say that we need to acquire a starter to replace him at #2 corner--yet if Boddenis cut, and he's re-signed, he'll be our #1 corner!
Bottom line: Fisher is cheap depth, forced into a starting role. His "skills" are best suited to the Tampa 2 we won't be running anymore. His contract is up, and he is due to be an unrestricted free agent.
Stanley Wilson: A 2005 third-round draft pick, fourth-year speedster (and Stanford grad) Stanley Wilson exploded at the tail end 2006, earning a starting spot and the team's Chuck Hughes award for 'most improved player'. It seemed like Wilson was well on his way, and began the 2007 season as the starting RCB. While he had some great individual games (8 tackles against Chicago!), he was in and out of the lineup due to injury, eventually being put on IR after the Thanksgiving game. in 2008, Wilson blew out his Achilles tendon in the first game of the preseason. Wilson at this point is a totally unknown quantity . . . his youth, blazing speed (4.36 @ the combine), decent size (5'-11". 189), and his play at the end of 2006 points to a very bright future. However, his inability to stay healthy, inconsistency, and the Tampa 2 scheme he played in make him an enigma. Even if he rehabs to 100%, his contract is up--Wilson will be an unrestricted free agent. Bottom line: Wilson is a bright and talented young man who can't stay healthy. Moreover, his contract is up. If he attracts little interest, the Lions may re-sign him to a "prove it"-type contract to see what he can do in the new scheme.
Ramzee Robinson: Famous mostly for being the 2007 draft's Mr. Irrelevant, Robinson has been cut, assigned to the pratice squad, signed, cut, and assigned to the practice squad about 237 times in two years. He got signed for good in the middle of 2008, and made a little noise on special teams and in the dime packages, getting 25 tackles. As an Alabama starter with a little size to him (5'-10", 186#), Robinson should make the squad next year--due to attrition if nothing else. Bottom line: a seventh-round draft pick with a smidge of upside, who ought to make the team next year.
Keith Smith: a third-round pick in the 2004 draft, Keith Smith has seen some time at nickel and dime, and has occasionally been pressed into starting duty when others have been injured. Smith has never made much of an impact, and at age 28 he's probably peaked. Smith played 10 games in 2008 before being placed on IR . . . he's a placeholder at best. I believe he's an unrestricted free agent. Bottom line: Smith never amounted to much, and if he somehow re-signs with the Lions will be strictly a cheap warm body.
SUMMARY: The situation here is dire. Bodden is a legit NFL #1 CB who could excel in the new system, but is due a monster bonus they might cut him to avoid paying. Travis Fisher is a nickel back at best, and is a free agent. Stanley Wilson has the talent to be an exellent man-to-man cover corner, but he can't stay healthy and is a free agent. Robinson is depth with a little upside, and Smith is a scrub and a free agent. If Bodden is let go, we will need three new corners, two of them starters. I hope Bodden is kept, and we draft a corner with legit speed and excellent return skills--hell, maybe two of them. A veteran starter would be nice, and Titans fourth-year CB/KR Chris Carr is reportedly interested in getting out from under the shadow of Cortland Finnegan & Co. in Tennessee. Sounds good to me. Bring friends Chris; bring friends.