Lawson proving more than just a cog in Lions’ secondary

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Cornerback Darius Slay is the still-budding star. Safety Glover Quin is the reliable veteran with a Pro Bowl on his resume and a knack for turning the ball over. Even Tavon Wilson, a former second-round pick and free-agent bargain, proved to be a versatile solution at strong safety last season.

Then there’s Nevin Lawson, the final piece of the Lions’ starting secondary.

Drafted as a potential nickelback solution in 2014, Lawson’s rookie season was cut short when he suffered a gruesome foot injury requiring emergency surgery during the second week of the season. Returning to action in 2015, he moved into the starting lineup on the outside, after Rashean Mathis suffered a concussion. Lawson hasn’t ceded the role since.

A popular perception is Lawson is a replaceable piece. Many outside observers believed the Lions needed to find an upgrade in the most recent draft, one packed with top-tier corner talent. And maybe the team did find a long-term replacement when they selected Teez Tabor in the second round.

Those opinions are nothing new for Lawson.

“It’s not annoying,” he said. “All my life I’ve been slept on. I came out of south Florida where a lot of corners went to big schools, who I knew I was better than. Then I went to Utah State. That’s a small school. It’s not like I played in the SEC. So automatically, I’ve always felt I was an underdog. I relish that.”

And maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Lawson, who has steadily improved with playing time, and has seen his performance validated this offseason via some advanced metrics.

Pro Football Focus has twice highlighted Lawson’s positive impact on the Lions. He certainly wasn’t the root of the secondary’s struggles last season. In fact, he was one of the least-targeted corners in the NFL, behind only Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, showing opposing quarterbacks were attacking other areas of the field when they posted their historically high passing rating against the Lions.

As part of being rarely targeted, Lawson gave up just .92 yards per coverage snap, the best among third-year players at his position. Compare that with New England’s Malcom Butler, who is likely to land a massive extension next offseason as a free agent. He allowed 1.36 yards per coverage snap in 2016.

Those numbers are impressive and tell a story, but they don’t particularly interest Lawson.

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“The only thing that shows my skills is what I do on film,” Lawson said. “None of that number stuff matters. The only thing that matters is getting Ws and being productive on this field for my team.”

Lawson isn’t without his flaws. His physicality, which could be considered his calling card, also gets him in trouble at times. He drew six flags last season, including a 66-yard pass interference infraction, the longest penalty in at least 30 years.

He’s also struggled to generate turnovers. Any turnovers. After recording four interceptions his senior year of college, Lawson is still looking for his first as a professional.

Working in Fort Lauderdale with his longtime trainer Tony Sands this offseason, Lawson focused on improving his ability to make plays on the ball.

“It’s major,” Lawson said. “It’s a big point for me. That’s one things I’ve been working on this offseason, hand-eye coordinator, ball skills. I want to make big plays this year, game-changing plays. Turning that ball over, that’s big for me this year.”

Slay, who has the nickname “Big Play” and scored multiple game-altering turnovers last season, said he’s been telling Lawson to be more aggressive.

“I just tell him, ‘Don’t be scared to make big plays because that’s what will hold you back. Don’t be scared to make a mistake,’ ” Slay said.

The Lions placed an emphasis on adding playmakers to the defense this offseason. Tabor had seven interceptions the past two seasons with Florida and he’s expected to push Lawson for playing time. That’s a challenge the veteran welcomes.

“Regardless of who is in the building, this is the NFL,” Lawson said. “There’s always going to be competition. I don’t care where you go, what level you’ve been at or how long you’ve been in this game, you better always be on your game and always be ready to step up.”

Lawson, 26, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He’s scheduled to be a free agent next offseason.

Twitter: @justin_rogers