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Lions' 2023 Review: Sutton Struggles, Depth Must Improve

How will Lions address cornerback position?

The Detroit Lions' secondary was exposed late in the season. 

Even as the team made a charge to the NFC Championship Game, the defensive backs struggled against top competition. Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Puka Nacua and Mike Evans all had 100-plus-yard games against Detroit's defense. 

As a result, cornerback is viewed as a top area of need for the Lions as they look to reach the Super Bowl next season. 

Detroit may have already started making changes at the position from a leadership standpoint, reportedly hiring a new defensive passing game coordinator and cornerbacks coach in Deshea Townsend

Here's a look at where the Lions stand at the cornerback position ahead of the offseason.

Reason for hope

Cam Sutton struggled in his first season with the Lions, but he has a track record that suggests improvement in 2024. Before coming to Detroit, he had established the ability to play both on the boundary and in the slot while playing for Pittsburgh. 

Prior to coming to Detroit, he was solid in coverage in 2022 with the Steelers. He allowed an opposing passer rating of 69.6 that season, yielding four touchdowns while intercepting three passes. 

Though he took his lumps in 2023, his track record suggests that he could improve next season. He was forced to play the top cornerback spot somewhat out of necessity. Emmanuel Moseley played just three snaps before suffering a season-ending injury, and Jerry Jacobs struggled. 

If the Lions can add another talented piece to their cornerback position, that could allow Sutton to take a more natural role. 

Kindle Vildor was the best of the other options opposite him, starting the final five games, including the postseason. 

Additionally, part of Detroit's struggles in coverage came as the result of having to cover for longer because of pass-rush struggles. If the Lions can get pressure easier in 2024, production in the secondary could improve. 

The reported hire of Townsend also brings valuable experience to the coaching staff. He won two Super Bowls with the Steelers during his playing career. 

Reason for worry

The league's elite receivers gashed the Lions late in the year. Jefferson totaled 333 yards in two games against the Lions, while Lamb had 227 in Week 17. As a result, Detroit needs to explore options for finding a solution to these struggles. 

Sutton allowed 113 yards in Week 17 against Dallas and 147 against Minnesota in the regular season finale. Against Tampa Bay in the divisional round, Baker Mayfield threw for 147 yards when targeting Sutton. 

It wasn't all on Sutton, though. Jacobs allowed seven touchdowns on passes thrown in his direction, and finished with a PFF coverage grade of 54.5, before being replaced in the starting lineup. 

Detroit explored many of its current internal options, as Jacobs, Vildor, Khalil Dorsey and Will Harris all got opportunities to solve the issues opposite Sutton. Steven Gilmore, who made the team as an undrafted free agent, is the only one of the group to have not started a game at cornerback in 2023. 

Sutton is a bounce-back candidate, but has proven to be inadequate when covering top wide receivers. The Lions need to evaluate the opportunity to bring in a shutdown cornerback through either free agency or the NFL Draft.

Biggest question

Who will be the Lions' No. 1 CB in 2024? As mentioned above, Cam Sutton struggled in this role in 2023, finishing the year with a 49.0 PFF coverage grade. Sutton can still be successful, but seems better suited for a No. 2 CB role within Detroit's defense.

With the team having explored all internal options, fresh faces are needed. The Lions could explore free agency, with a cornerback class headlined by L'Jarius Sneed. Detroit could also take a chance on Moseley, by bringing him back on another short-term contract.

There are also a number of talented prospects in the draft, though many of the top options could be off the board by the Lions' pick at No. 29 overall.

Top cornerback prospects that could be available for Detroit with its first-round selection include Alabama's Kool-Aid McKinstry, Clemson's Nate Wiggins and Toledo's Quinyon Mitchell. 

Free agents

  • CB/S Will Harris (Unrestricted free agent)
  • CB Kindle Vildor (Unrestricted free agent)
  • CB Emmanuel Moseley (Unrestricted free agent)
  • CB Khalil Dorsey (Restricted free agent)
  • CB Jerry Jacobs (Restricted free agent)
  • CB Chase Lucas (Exclusive rights free agent)