Ever since the brutal injuries to cornerback Bryant Westbrook and safety Kurt Schultz during the 2000 season, the Lions have been absolutely desperate for help in the secondary. With the possible exception of the offensive line, the defensive backfield has been the most consistently disappointing Lions unit on the field over the past decade. However, unlike the offensive line, disappointment has been the only thing consistent about the Lions' secondary. While the offensive line has had the same left tackle and center for nearly a decade, it seems as though every year brings a new "secondary overhaul" . . . and every year brings more disappointment.
2001: Signed CB Todd Lyght, CB/S Robert Bailey, and S Chidi Iwouma. Subtracted S Corwin Brown, CB Darnell Walker, and CB Marquis Walker.
2002: Drafted CB Andre Goodman and CB Chris Cash; signed S Corey Harris, S Brian Walker, CB Eric Davis, and S Bracey Walker. Subtracted Terry Fair, Ron Rice, Kurt Schultz, Robert Bailey, and Chidi Iwouma.
2003: Signed CB Dre' Bly, CB Otis Smith, and drafted S Terry Holt. Subtracted Todd Lyght and Eric Davis.
2004: Signed CB Fernando Bryant, S Brock Marion, S Vernon Fox, and drafted CB Keith Smith. Subtracted Brian Walker and Corey Harris.
2005: Signed S Kennoy Kennedy, CB R.W. McQuarters, and S Jon McGraw; drafted CB Stanley Wilson. Subtracted Brock Marion and Chris Cash.
2006: Drafted S Daniel Bullocks and signed CB Jamar Fletcher. Subtracted Andre Goodman, R.W. McQuarters, Bracey Walker, and Vernon Fox.
2007: Drafted S Gerald Alexander, CB A.J. Davis, and CB Ramzee Robinson; signed CB Travis Fisher. Subtracted Dre Bly, Terry Holt, Jamar Fletcher, and Jon McGraw.
2008: Traded for CB Leigh Bodden, and signed S Dwight Smith, S Kalvin Person, and CB Brian Kelly. Subtracted Fernando Bryant, Kennoy Kennedy, and Stanley Wilson . . . and Brian Kelly.
2009: Drafted S Louis Delmas, and signed CB Philip Buchanon, CB/S Anthony Henry, CB Eric King, and S Marquand Manuel. Subtracted Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher, and Dwight Smith.
That is an extraordinary amount of roster churn. Lest you think these are mostly bottom-feeders, I made sure not to mention any player that didn't play at least 10 games in a season for the Lions. If you look closely, the Lions brought in two or more new starters in the backfield almost every single year since Millen took over. There was absolutely zero consistency. Outside of Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant, I don't think any player on this list started more than two consecutive years . . . and thanks to injuries, Bly and Bryant were almost never on the field at the same time in four seasons!
Unfortunately, it looks like this year's overhaul is D.O.A. After jettisoning most of the depth chart at cornerback, the Lions traded Jon Kitna to Dallas for Anthony Henry, signed Philip Buchanon from Tampa Bay, and signed Titans nickel/dime guy Eric King. The Lions then drafted Louis Delmas in the second round to make a very talented young trio of Daniel Bullocks and Gerald Alexander. Veterans Kalvin Pearson and Stu Schweigart made for solid depth. Then, oddly, the Lions added journeyman safety Marquand Manuel . . . it seemed to make no sense. Wasn't there already a logjam at safety? Bullocks should be pencilled in next to Delmas, Alexander is allegedly healthy, Pearson is an adequate SS, and Schweigart is a talented enigma . . . where would Manuel fit? Even if Pearson's too limited to play in Schwartz/Cunningham's symmetrical defense, and Schwiegart is strictly depth, shouldn't Manuel be trapped firmly beneath Bullocks and Alexander?
Apparently not. According to Tom Kowalski, Bullocks regressed badly throughout the season, "missed even more time during this off-season" (?!?), and is "way behind the rest of the veterans". This is dismaying, to say the least. If Bullocks is not only not reminding people of 2006, but way behind guys like Manuel, Pearson, and Schweigart? He'll honestly have a fight to make the team. In fact, he almost surely will, because Killer then went and penned another major bummer of an article . . .
If Henry slides back to safety, that means that he, Alexander, Bullocks, Manuel, Pearson, and Schweigart are all fighting for one starting spot, and maybe two reserve positions. Pearson, the most obvious cut, is a special teams ace, so maybe not. Schweigart's a local-ish product and a fan favorite, but unless he returns to his '05 form, I don't see him escaping the axe. That leaves Henry and Alexander as the most likely prospects to start next to Delmas, with the loser of that battle fighting Manuel and Bullocks for the third-safety spot. That's a nice mix of youth, talent, experience, skill, and depth at the two safety spots, then. But, what about the corners?
Oh my stars and garters.
If Henry slides back to safety, the #1 corner is Philip Buchanon. My take on him at the time of the signing included a fair bit of optimism--as a young veteran, he possessed all the talent in the world--tempered with a good bit of realism: his production in Tampa made him a legit NFL starter, but little more. There's no doubt that at his best, in a man-to-man scheme, he'd be a top 20, top 15 corner in this league. However, he's never consistently played at his best, and he's always had a bit of at attitude problem, whining his way out of first Oakland, and then Houston. That appeared to be a non-issue for the past two seasons, but attitude-problem leopards seldom change their spots. Combine that factor with the uncertainty that is evaluating a cornerback in the Tampa Two, and you have a complete mystery as your #1 corner.
The #2 at that point would be either Eric King, or Keith Smith. King was a sort of Plan C for the Lions. It had been noted, almost from the day Schwartz took over, that Titans nickel corner/return specialist Chris Carr would be an ideal fit, and a priority target. When the Lions feared missing out on Carr, they signed Eric King as insurance--another Titans corner, and also a nickel back, depending on what you read. Titans HC Jeff Fisher:
"He played real well for us as a special teamer, he played corner for us at times and was a nickel back. He's a tough guy and a good locker room guy and a good person. Those are the kinds of players you want on your team. Eric will be successful there with whatever they ask him to do. Eric, coming in, can get the job done as a starter if that's what Jim wants to do."
I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Titans had two young corners that were good enough to start for other teams on their bench, so I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Lions are going to be okay if they're starting this King guy and Philip Buchanon at corner when toe meets leather in New Orleans. Then there's Keith Smith, 2004 draftee who flashed some promise initially, and then languished under Marinelli. I am consistently advised that Smith is for real, has great talent, and was simply ruined by bad coaching. Be that as it may, ruined by bad coaching is ruined by bad coaching, and I am taking a firm believe-it-as-I see it with both of these guys. After that is former Mr. Irrelevant, Ramzee Robinson, and depth guys Chris Roberson, Antonio Smith, and Dexter Wynn.
Right now, things are looking extremely shaky back there. I like the safety pair of Delmas and Henry a lot--but I'd much rather have Henry be able to stay at corner with Buchanon, and Alexander or Manuel starting next to Delmas. No matter how things shake out, though, there's no doubt that the Lions are still in desperate need of true skill and talent in the defensive backfield--and nothing will be able to change that until the snow melts in 2010. Don't forget, this is when things look their best--heaven help the Lions' defense once injuries, fatigue, and/or underperformance cut down the Lions' DBs like weeds once more.