Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
This is the time of year where people in my line of work get barraged with thoughts and opinions about what the Lions should do in the draft and free agency. One of the more common comments, questions, and demands that I get is that the Lions must go out and get a cornerback as a top priority. I respectfully but vehemently disagree, as long as one particular move is made.
That move is signing free agent Chris Houston back to the team with a long-term deal. Houston is the top corner on the team when healthy, and one of the better all around corners in the league. It is not a coincidence that the team peaked last season when Houston was at his healthiest in the four games following the bye week. In those games the Lions surrendered just 18.5 points per game, nine points per game better than the season average. They won three of those games and lost the other 13-7 to Chicago in a game where Houston was outstanding when matched up against Brandon Marshall.
Houston is a free agent, and he will have other suitors. If someone offers Houston the kind of deal Cortland Finnegan (5 yr/$50M) or Brandon Carr (5yr/$50.1M) got last offseason, it will be tough for Detroit to compete. But I don’t think Houston will attract that kind of cash. He has missed at least 2 games in three of the last four years and is not a corner that racks up interceptions, which are price drivers in the corner market. Other free agents will draw higher contracts: Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and perhaps Christopher Owens, Rashean Mathis, and Mike Jenkins. With caps being tighter all around the league, I expect Houston to sign for a back-loaded deal in the realm of 5 years and $40M with a $13-15M signing bonus and the last two years of the deal written just to amortize the bonus over a longer period. The Lions can afford that even as strapped as they appear to be. If not, the youth movement will be in full swing.
Contrary to what appears to be common opinion, the Lions have already addressed the longstanding issue at corner. In the 2012 NFL Draft, Detroit selected not one, not two, but three corners. Bill Bentley immediately assumed the starting nickel/slot role, and the 3rd round pick looked very much like a rookie. He exuded confidence and toughness and showed the agility to stay with quicker slot receivers. He also showed a real troubling inability to locate the ball or anticipate routes, which resulted in five penalties in four games before heading to IR with a concussion. Those are both issues that get mitigated with experience, and I expect a better Bill Bentley in 2013.
Jonte Green was arguably the most pleasant surprise of 2012. The 6th round rookie was thrown into the fire after starting the year as a special teams player (and not a very good one) when injuries forced Coach Schwartz to play him. Green was not great, but he acquitted himself far better than anyone could have expected. He showed the ability to turn and run with anyone, and he was not passive in run support. There were certainly lumps–the Atlanta debacle comes to mind–but Jonte Green proved he is a legit NFL corner. I’m not sure he’s a viable #2 starter in 2013, but Green is only going to improve. His length and speed are huge assets for this defense.
The wildcard is Chris Greenwood, the 5th round pick out of Albion College. Greenwood missed his rookie season on injured reserve, which is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him. He needed a redshirt season to get accustomed to the huge jump from the MIAA to the NFL in terms of size and speed of players and the intensity of practices and film study. His measurables (6’1”, 195 pounds, 4.34 40 yard dash) are exactly what the coaches were talking about when they said they want to get bigger and faster on the back end. I scouted Greenwood more than most and I had him rated significantly higher than Green, more instinctive and more aggressive with the ball in the air. I expect Greenwood to be at least as good in 2013 as Green was in his rookie season. Mayhew and the coaches must trust in what they believed last April, and those 2012 draftees deserve the chance to prove themselves.
Ron Bartell played well enough in his one-game audition to return as the veteran reserve option. The Bears picked on him and he responded with a pass breakup and nine tackles, showing good ball awareness but lacking enough athleticism to do much about it. At $1M for next season, he is a relative bargain in that capacity. He’s nearly 6’2” and is not that far removed from being just as good as Chris Houston, only with better ball skills. He is precisely the sort of low-end veteran surprise that good teams resurrect for an unexpected career season. Lions fans hoped that Drayton Florence was that guy a year ago, but that failed miserably.
I expect Bartell to start training camp on even footing with Green for the starting job opposite a re-signed Houston. If Houston departs, then obviously everyone is moved one peg too far up the depth chart, but that’s why I expect signing Houston to be a top priority for GM Martin Mayhew. Houston has expressed a strong desire to return, and the team feels the same way; both parties know they are more valuable to each other than apart.