The Lions secured the services of all of their major free agents, and extended Calvin Johnson until the sun goes dark. As I wrote last week, this slams the revolving free agency door shut: the Lions won’t be losing any of their key young veterans for quite some time.
The flip side of this is obvious: they won't be bringing in anyone else's key young veterans, either. The Lions have only acquired one new free agent who figures to make any impact at all, and that's former Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey.
What are we getting? What can we expect? How does Lacey stack up to the existing Lions cornerbacks? Time to mash up two of our favorite features: Meet the Cubs and Old Mother Hubbard.
Jacob Lacey was a three-star Rivals prospect out of Garland, Texas. A 5’-10,” 155-pound kid with decent speed and some pop in his shoulder, Lacey had several Big XII and Big Ten offers. Lacey initially committed to Kansas, but flipped to Oklahoma State. Lacey played in 10 games as a freshman, and started all 13 games his sophomore year—as he would his junior and senior years as well.
Per College Football Reference, Lacey’s junior year was extremely impressive: 63 tackles, 48 of them solo, with 5 interceptions (one returned for a score) and 14 passes defensed. He had 61 tackles in senior year, 52 solo, and though he only had 2 picks he still broke up 16 passes.
Lacey's lack of game-breaking ball skills, as well as his thin frame (his combine weight was 177 pounds), dropped him out of draft consideration. Most sites projected him as a free agent, but also noted his upside (SI.com graded Lacey at 3.00, a “first-year contributor” in their system).
Contribute immediately, he did: after signing with the Colts and making the initial 53-man roster, Lacey got on the field almost immediately, and started Week 5 of his rookie year. After the subsequent bye, Lacey picked off Sam Bradford, took it back to the house, and drew a celebration flag all in one go . . . my kind of player. He finished 2010 with 3 interceptions and 7 passes defensed in sixteen games (nine starts).
Lacey was picked on, too; Mike Vick and Carson Palmer completed a combined 10-of-12 against him for 101 yards and a score over consecutive weeks. But for an undrafted free agent rookie, stepping in and being a major contributor to a team’s weakest unit is impressive.
As for 2011? Well . . .
As we saw in the cornerback Old Mother Hubbard, Darrelle Revis was the best corner on the planet last season and nobody was close. Aaron Berry earned the season’s best PFF grade, barely eclipsing Chris Houston who played hurt at the tail end of the season (note that Houston’s positive plays actually helped the Lions win more than Revis’s did the Jets).
After Berry and Houston’s solidly above-average performances, Alphonso Smith turned in the most spectacularly boom-or-bust mediocre season ever. It’s at this performance level, with a much improved level of consistency, that Lacey’s 2011 campaign came in.
Lacey played 712 snaps, three times as many as Smith, almost twice as many as Berry, and about a hundred fewer than Houston. He didn’t have much statistically in either direction: just 2 TDs allowed, but only 1 interception and 3 passes defensed. At 34 targets per TD allowed, he was above the NFL average, and ranked 30th out of 109 qualifying corners. But then, he also allowed 73.5% of passes targeted his way to be caught, which was the eighth-worst percentage in the NFL.
This is probably why Colts fans were not a huge fan of Lacey's work last season, and also likely why Lacey was available for the Lions to sign. But his +EPA of 31.7 and +WPA of 0.58 back up the statistical production: he didn’t make a lot of big plays, but he made them in big spots—and his PFF coverage grade of -4.8 coverage indicates he didn’t allow that many of them, either. Plus, his run grade was an excellent +3.1, 22nd-best of 109 in the NFL.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, either. Nate Dunlevy of Colts Authority and Bleacher Report pointed out this ESPN story about Lacey’s rebound after defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired. The bounce in the PFF grades is Backusian:
Dunlevy also went to the tape himself to break down Lacey’s performance against the Chiefs in that fateful Week 5 game you see in red above. Lacey had a rough day at the office, but not nearly as bad as Colts fans came away thinking.
Bottom Line: Jacob Lacey is about as good as Alphonso Smith, trading the gambling risk/reward for consistency and much improved play against the run. Lacey should have a good look at unseating Smith for playing time in nickel/dime situations; if he can continue developing as he did at the end of the year he could push Berry for time at the #2 spot.