The Secondary Is Dead, Long Live the Secondary . . . again

>> 5.13.2010

Last offseason, I did a little research on the Lions’ secondary problems.  It seemed to me that there’d been an “overhaul” back there every year, going as far back as I could remember.  I looked it up, and was horrified.  Starting with the season-ending injuries to CB Bryant Westbrook and S Kurt Schultz during the 2000 season, the Lions have brought in two or more new starters in almost every subsequent year:

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, traded for S Ko Simpson, and signed CB Philip Buchanon, CB/S Anthony Henry, CB Eric King, and S Marquand Manuel.  Subtracted Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher, and Dwight Smith.

2010: Drafted CB Amari Spievey, traded for CB Chris Houston, and signed CB Johnathon Wade, and S C. C. Brown.  Subtracted Philip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, and Kalvin Pearson.

This list ins’t meant to be comprehensive; any player prior to 2009 on the list played in at least ten games for the Lions.  in ‘09 and ‘10, I included any player who was expected to make a significant contribution to the team.  This is why players like CB Jahi Word-Daniels, a practice-squadder briefly activated to fill an injury-opened roster spot, aren’t on there.

However, there are some seemingly-insignificant players who might play a role when the curtain goes up on the 2010 season, like CB Jack Williams.  Williams, a fourth-round pick in his second season, was signed after Week 7 last year, when the Broncos released him.  He blew his left ACL on his first play as a Lion, and was placed on Injured Reserve.  He’s a talented young corner who could immediately push King and Spievey if healthy—but we have no idea how healthy he really is.

As it stands, though, we’re right on track for another overhaul this time next year.  Chris Houston, as promising and young as he is, was still replaced and traded after his disappointing 2009 performance.  Amari Spievey (yes, Meet the Cubs piece on him coming soon) is going to step in and play, but every cornerback has a year or two of ramp-up time.  The only possible long-term answer to the #2 safety problem is Daniel Bullocks, but who knows what he’ll be able to contribute?

Eric King, in my humble estimation, doesn't belong anywhere near the starting lineup.

Though the uncapped UFA bonanza is over, and the draft is long in the books, there IS one possible acquisition left out there; one possible target who could forestall multiple-starter secondary churn next season.  O.J. Atogwe, the St. Louis Rams’ excellent young ballhawk, has refused to sign his RFA tender—meaning he’ll become an unrestricted free agent come June 1st.  As Twitterer @Msu4Us pointed out, Atogwe is from Windsor, so if there’s any “childhood fan” mojo, it’ll likely be for the Lions . . .

On the other hand, the Lions’ front office has already spent a ton of the Fords’ money this offseason, and Atgowe will likely command a fortune on the unrestricted market.  Unless the Lions are convinced that Atogwe is THE answer to their defensive problems, I don’t anticipate that dramatic of a move.

No, the likely answer is that one of the amassed throng of mediocre safeties will have to scale the mountain of bodies before them, and plant their flag at the summit . . . where it will stay until next season, when the roster dynamite levels the mountain, and the annual secondary rebuild begins.


C. C. Brown: Lions “Address” Safety Position

>> 5.11.2010


When it became known that the Lions had signed safety C. C. Brown, I immediately received condolences from Texans fans.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, I held out hope that Brown would be the kind of post-draft signing who could play a vital role.  Not a difference-maker, per se, but as a gap-closer between Marvin White and an average NFL starter, Brown could make a difference.  Even mildly strengthening the defense’s weakest link, which is also the last line of said defense, could strongly improve the unit’s overall level of play.

Well, according to Pro Football Focus’s safety film grades, C. C. Brown is an improvement over Marvin White, but only a miniscule one: Brown graded as the 76th-best of 87 safeties, and White finished 86th of those same 87.  I’ll leave it to them to explain how their grading system works, but essentially, players are graded on each play as to whether their performance is above or below an average performance for an NFL starter.

Glancing at the ordinal ranking, Brown and White are both terrible; we can safely put any hope that Brown will be a significant upgrade out with the trash.  But take a closer look at the actual data: over a greater amount of snaps (490 to 452), C. C.’s play earned a grade of negative 10.5, meaning that the balance of positive plays and negative plays swung him 10.5 points below the average for his position.  Marvin White’s grade was –21.6.

You can see in the data that C. C. was terrible in coverage, grading out at –10.6 in pass coverage assignments.  This is consistent with the most vocal criticism of his play.  However, he was +2.1 against the run, tied for 26th-best, just 0.1 behind 25th-ranked Louis Delmas.  Meanwhile, Marvin White was terrible everywhere: –14.2 in coverage, and –5.7 against the run.

Now, these grades aren't authoritiative, by any means: they're produced by passionate fans reviewing TV broadcasts.  But it gives you a lot more legitimate idea of Brown’s limitations than “he sucks”.  We see that Brown was indeed a major liability in coverage, but not as bad as White was.  Further, Brown was actually quite good against the run.  Now, for the wet blanket: Marquand Manuel and Ko Simpson, with 354 and 321 snaps, respectively, graded out much better than either Brown or White at–2.6 and –4.8 overall, respectively.

The next clue as to Brown's worth comes in his contract: he has a one-year contract with an undisclosed (likely minimal) salary.  We can see that he wasn’t brought in to start, but to compete.  Quoth The Grandmaster:

The one area that we probably still have more work to do is the secondary.  It is wide open in a lot of areas . . . We've got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football in the NFL, and they're all at that stage where they need to grab ahold of a starting position and hold onto it and not just be a part-time player or a bit player.

I’m left with an empty feeling here.  Between Brown, Manuel, Simpson, White, and Bullocks, only Bullocks hasn’t thoroughly proven himself to be a substandard NFL safety.  Bullocks is a human question mark: if a crazed, haggard man claiming to be from the future stopped me on a street corner today and told me Daniel Bullocks will to the Pro Bowl this year, I could see it.  If the same man stopped me today and told me Daniel Bullocks will be cut tomorrow, I could see it.

If Bullocks steps up and takes the job, I'll be thrilled; Bullocks and Delmas will make an excellent, young, athletic safety pair.  If it’s anybody else, or a platoon, this is going to be another yearlong headache of long runs and passes blowing games wide open.  C. C. Brown will be in the mix, I’m sure, and he’s certainly better than White . . . but anyone expecting him to step in and play well, or even be the odds-on favorite to start, is kidding themselves.


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