February 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm

John Niyo

Speedy Dee Milliner lets Lions corner draft market

Read these names slowly, if only because you've likely forgotten most of them.

Phillip Buchanon. Will James. Demarcus Faggins. Anthony Henry. Kevin Hobbs. Marcus McCauley. DeAngelo Smith. Jack Williams. Jahi Word-Daniels. Brian Witherspoon. Tye Hill. Eric King. Prince Miller. Paul Pratt. Chris Houston. Jonathan Wade. Nathan Vasher. Anthony Madison. Brandon McDonald. Alphonso Smith. Eric Wright. Aaron Berry. Amari Spievey. Don Carey. Jacob Lacey. Bill Bentley. Jonte Green. Chris Greenwood. Drayton Florence. Patrick Lee. Ross Weaver. Lionel Smith. Conroy Black. Ronald Bartell.

That's a list of the cornerbacks who've cycled through the Lions roster in the four years since Martin Mayhew took over as full-time general manager and hired Jim Schwartz as coach.

It's an incomplete list, actually. But it's certainly long enough to help explain why the Lions have struggled to win and hold leads and limit coaching meltdowns on the sideline.

"Corners," Schwartz acknowledged last week, "are tough to find in the NFL."

Well, here's one for you: Alabama's Dee Milliner. Widely considered the best cornerback in this year's draft class, the consensus All-American boasts the size (6-foot, 200 pounds) and instincts teams covet in today's pass-oriented NFL. He plays smart, he plays physical, and on Tuesday he answered one nagging question scouts had, posting an impressive 40-yard dash time (4.37 seconds) at the NFL combine, solidifying his standing as a likely top-10 pick.

"I don't know why they thought I was slow," Milliner told the NFL Network's Deion Sanders.

And in doing so, if nothing else, he gave the Lions exactly what they were hoping to find in Indianapolis: another legitimate option near the top of April's draft.

Help on the line

Historically, it's tough to find many cornerbacks who were selected as high as the Lions are slotted to pick (No. 5 overall) in the first round. In the last 10 years, only two — Terence Newman (Cowboys) and Patrick Peterson (Cardinals) — went in the top five.

The absence of a rookie salary scale had a lot do with that, of course. And while Milliner isn't in Peterson's class — the Lions, as you'll recall, were among the teams trying to trade up for him in 2011 — he's at least a plausible choice in a draft that's lacking in elite talent.

Maybe even the best choice, though offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher and guard Chance Warmack all would make sense for the Lions, who finally seem intent on overhauling their offensive line. Joeckel probably won't be available at No. 5, but the other two could be.

And if you subscribe to the old "Planet Theory" — there's just not that many athletic, 300-pounders roaming the Earth, as former Giants general manager George Young used to say — then you probably go with Fisher, who has wowed scouts and personnel executives on and off the field this winter. No argument here if that's the Lions pick in a couple months.

Defensive ends Bjoern Werner (Florida State), Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) and Dion Jordon (Oregon) also are candidates, particularly if the Lions lose Cliff Avril to free agency and can't find a suitable replacement.


But it's Milliner who many will be penciling in for Detroit in their mock drafts, and for good reason. Simply put, the Lions can't keep pretending the revolving door in the secondary isn't a primary concern. Starting with a different group every spring and playing with a different bunch every week isn't getting them anywhere but back to where they started defensively.

And with last year's starting cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey scheduled to be free agents next month — re-signing Houston has to be a priority in a weak market — it's still a major need, even after Mayhew used three draft picks on the position last spring.

Third-rounder Bill Bentley was thrust into a starting role early before suffering season-ending shoulder injuries, while sixth-rounder Jonte Green was asked to start late in the year due to attrition. But asked last week if those two — along with fifth-round pick Chris Greenwood, who spent the year on the physically unable to perform list — were ready to be full-time starters this season, Mayhew made it pretty clear that's not Plan A.

"All three of those guys have the ability to start," he said. "But when that happens for them I'm not really sure."

No one's sure what to make of the Lions safety position, either, especially with Louis Delmas' injury history clouding his free-agent status. So that's another area where they'll look for help, perhaps at the top of the second round — the same place they landed Delmas in 2009. And as luck would have it, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls this the "best safety class" in years.

"Maybe not with a bunch of first-round guys that you're going to run around and say, 'That's my guy,' but the depth of the class," Mayock said. "Offensive line, defensive line, inside linebacker, safety — all of the non-sexy positions — are pretty deep this year."

As for the cornerbacks? Not so much. Remember, they're tough to find. And the Lions, who haven't drafted one in the first round since 1998, should understand that better than most.



On Tuesday Dee Milliner answered one nagging question scouts had at the Combine, posting an impressive 40-yard dash time (4.37 seconds) at the NFL combine, solidifying his standing as a likely top-10 pick. / Joe Robbins/Getty Images
See Also
More John Niyo