Michael Brockers was that guy in the defensive line room. Alex Anzalone has been him for the linebackers.
But in the past two seasons, as the Detroit Lions rebuilt their defense from the ground up, they never had a veteran leader to do the right thing to help bring their secondary along.
“One of the things that Brad (Holmes) and I wanted to do was I thought it was always important to have, you really want to have a veteran who definitely understands what it’s going to look like and who can lead the group,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said during minicamp in June. “Kind of a coach that’s really a player for you. Alex does it in that room. That’s what Brockers was to us. A number of those guys and we never quite got that in the secondary and I wish we had because I just think it helps the whole room. It kind of teaches you, and that’s really what we have now.”
The Lions signed a trio of veteran defensive backs this offseason to add experience and leadership to a secondary that has been a weak link for two years.
Cam Sutton played six NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers before signing with the Lions in March. Emmanuel Moseley started most of the past four seasons for the San Francisco 49ers after being an undrafted free agent in 2018. And CJ Gardner-Johnson made the Super Bowl last year with the Philadelphia Eagles and, like Anzalone, got his start on a defense that looks like what the lions drive.
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Gardner-Johnson and Anazlone were teammates with the New Orleans Saints in 2019-20 when Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was the team’s secondary coach.
“There’s a reason we went and got Cam Sutton,” Campbell said. “There’s a reason we got Moseley. There’s a reason we got CJ. They definitely upgrade us production-wise, but also, they’re football guys and they fit everything we’re about. That way , they do their business on, they’re veteran guys, they’ve got skins on the wall, they’re coming from winning programs and they’re just playing the game the right way.”
Sutton took first-team reps at outside cornerback this spring, and Gardner-Johnson took first-team reps at slot corner. Both are penciled in as starters in what will be a new-look secondary this fall.
Moseley should join them in the starting lineup at some point, though he has sat out organized team activities and mandatory minicamp while rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered last fall.
New Lions cornerbacks coach Dre Bly said he was struck by Sutton and Moseley’s professionalism this spring, noting that Moseley was one of a small handful of veterans who stayed in town for the final week of OTAs, after Campbell apologized for most of it.
Moseley took some first-team walk-through reps at cornerback this spring and is expected to compete with Jerry Jacobs for the starting job when healthy.
“He’s an anxious man,” Bly said. “He was a pretty daggoon good player out there in San Fran. He’s from North Carolina, went to Tennessee, played with Cam, so those guys are kind of wired the same, and then just to see his fire to come back on the field, his commitment to work and rehab, that tells you about the man. When most guys travel and take vacations, he works here to make sure he’s ready when we get back to camp. So I’m excited to get a chance to work with him. I think he brings a tremendous amount of leadership and experience to our room and can’t wait to see what comes of it.”
Ammon St. Brown’s next step
Ammon St. Brown has the eighth-most receptions in the NFL (196) over the past two seasons and could be in line for a bigger 2023.
He has said he wants to become more of a deep threat in his third season, and Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El said he has seen subtle growth from the St. Brown who could help him in his quest.
“He can get in and out of wounds so easily, like he doesn’t have to give all that extra stuff because he can just get out of it so quickly,” Randle El said last week. “So I just want (him) to run the smooth route. Like, you don’t have to give anything extra on top of that, just pop-pop, get out of it, and he’s done that in OTAs so it’s been a growth for him. So no extra movement, just get into the route, get out of it because he gets into the route so fast.”
St. Brown, averaging 10.6 yards per carry. catch for his career, saw an increase in numbers last season after he became more formidable with the ball. He broke five more tackles last season than he did as a rookie and averaged slightly more yards after the catch (4.9 vs. 4.7 as a rookie).
The only receivers with more catches in the past two years are Justin Jefferson (236), Tyreek Hill (230), Davante Adams (223), Cooper Kupp (220), Stefon Diggs (211), Travis Kelce (202) and Chris Godwin ( 202).
“A lot of it for him is YAC, (and it’s) reading those coverages over and over again,” Randle El said. “And he got so much better last year and you saw that jump, so now it’s like, ‘Okay, I got it down a little bit, how can I perfect it over and over again as it relates to where I have need it. to be when I need to be there.’ And that’s working back and forth with (Jared) Goff and knowing the coverages and seeing that.”
Cornerback Starling Thomas V played well enough this spring that he appears ready to challenge for a roster spot in training camp. He’s not the only undrafted rookie to catch coaches’ eyes.
Glenn referred to UDFA defensive linemen Cory Durden and Chris Smith as “guys (who) can help us” this fall, and Lions defensive line coach John Scott Jr. was pleased with both players’ performances in OTAs.
“Yeah, I’ve been very impressed with the two big inside guys that we brought in,” Scott said. “Very impressed with those guys.”
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Smith, who starred for Bloomfield Hill’s Cranbrook-Kingswood, played his first four seasons at Harvard before transferring to Notre Dame last season, where he made five starts and had 17 tackles.
“When you watch Chris’ tape, Chris is a technician, man,” Scott said. “He does some things naturally that we don’t even have to train here as far as block recognition, block destruction. It comes very naturally to him. He learned that at Notre Dame and it’s served him well. He’s done a nice job, since he’s been out here too. He’s a little bit of a quiet guy so you have to push him. But he’s a great guy and he works his way up and just always tries to go the extra mile and get it right how you want it. Very coachable kid. He’s been a joy to have in the room so far.”