Wojo: Tabor could be more than a tease in Lions' new defense

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Second-year pro Teez Tabor is competing for the starting cornerback spot opposite of Darius Slay.

Allen Park — The grin is back and so are the possibilities, and so is the whiff of confidence. It’s a fresh start for a lot of Lions, none fresher than for Teez Tabor.

As a rookie cornerback, Tabor looked lost the first half of last season, and then gradually looked tantalizing, a Teez if you will. Now he looks like a guy who could play a huge role in the Lions’ secondary, perhaps a bookend to Pro Bowler Darius Slay.

The pads were popping Sunday for the first time in training camp, and Tabor keeps popping out. No one is hurling superlatives in the early days of the Matt Patricia regime, nor should they. But while many eyes are on the top rookies — first-rounder Frank Ragnow, second-rounder Kerryon Johnson — the Lions are viewing last year’s second-rounder with a fresh set of eyes.

Tabor was the brash guy who declared himself the best cornerback in the draft last year, even the best player overall. Then he ran an alarmingly slow 40 time and the slide began, until GM Bob Quinn took a chance and plucked him at No. 53. Partly by design — the Lions were deep in the secondary — and partly by self-preservation, Tabor barely played initially. Cornerbacks often face a frustrating transition to the NFL, and he didn’t take a snap until the fourth game, and then only on special teams.

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But in case you missed the news out of Patricia’s first camp, last year is last year, a phrase repeated so often, I’ll assume last year truly is last year, and the new staff doesn’t care a lick about what happened. It’s definitely different at Lions practice now, more energy, more running, more drills, more hitting. Quinn promised the team would ramp up its toughness and physicality, and Patricia can barely contain his excitement talking about it.

And Tabor, who uses size (6-foot) and strength more than speed, can barely contain his excitement seeing and hearing it. He’s in the midst of a fierce battle with DeShawn Shead, Nevin Lawson and Jamal Agnew for the starting cornerback spot opposite Slay, especially vital because opponents are more likely to throw there than to test Slay.

“I love coach Matty P, aggressive guy,” Tabor said. “I love what he’s trying to do with the organization, trying to create the culture. When you love something and have a passion for something, and you see somebody like him with that same passion, I love it. Just raises your passion and energy for that same thing.”

December flash

Make no mistake, Patricia is involved in everything on the field. He’s in the middle of drills, on offense and defense. He’s talking to everyone, stalking about, sometimes angry, often encouraging.

It’s way too early to say whether the Lions will be more schematically sound, or more disciplined. But there’s no doubt they’re going to emphasize physicality more than ever. Jim Caldwell ran shorter practices, usually less than two hours, and tried to keep his players fresh with limited contact. Patricia will go upwards of two-and-half hours, and says there will be live tackling at some point.

You knew it was different when he opened camp with a goal-line drill. On Sunday, he ran a modified version of the “Oklahoma drill” — a defender and a ball carrier laid on their backs, head to head, then leapt up to battle.

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In practice, the cornerback-receiver clashes are crunching, with bigger pass-catchers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay challenging bigger cornerbacks such as Tabor and Shead.

“That’s what we want to be, a physical team,” Jones said. “You know, the most dominant team wins every Sunday, that’s what we have to be and that’s how we practice, and we’re all taking to it.”

If Tabor can use his hands effectively in press coverage, the old issue about his speed doesn’t matter as much. Tabor doesn’t want to belabor his rookie struggles — last year is last year! — but late last season, his talent began to flash.

He only played 190 snaps on defense, but 127 came in three December games. He went out early in the finale against Green Bay with what looked like a serious arm injury, but nothing was broken or torn and he’s fine now.

Humbled and hungry

Like most teams, New England looked at Tabor coming out of Florida and probably did a double-take when he ran a 4.63 in the 40 at the combine, perhaps bothered by a hamstring issue. He then ran a slower 4.77 at Florida’s pro day, after which he declared, “Somebody could lose their job if they pass on me, so I ain’t mad at it.”

Tabor still has personality and self-confidence, but he’s expressing it a bit more subtly these days. Patricia remembered him from the draft, as the Patriots generally prefer big-bodied cornerbacks. If Tabor can take a leap in his second year, it would greatly enhance the roster, because second-round picks have to play.

“Real good player, plays extremely hard, works at the game,” Patricia said. “He’s long, he has deceiving kind of length and speed. We will take a look at that as he’s going forward, but we have a couple guys in the same situations, obviously with the addition of Shead, and all of those guys are in there competing.”

Shead, the free-agent pickup from Seattle, has been getting slightly more work with the first team, and Lawson may be the favorite, but the position is wide open. After a rough rookie campaign, Tabor’s eyes are wide open, and he says he feels more comfortable the more he plays.

Patricia’s style might not work for every player, but it certainly can resonate with those who need a boost, or a fresh start.

“One day I want to be a head coach, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve kind of taken things from a lot of people,” Tabor said. “If I could be like one guy, I’d want to be like (Patricia). He’s not like, 'Oh, let the assistant coaches do the job.' No, he demands what he wants, and I feel all great coaches have that quality. They’re gonna demand greatness out of their players. One thing about coach, he’s hands-on.”

That fits, because as a cornerback, Tabor is trying to be hands-on, more combative, more impactful. If he didn’t know before, he knows now. It’s a humbling drop from touted to doubted, but it’s not an impossible climb back up.