For Diggs, it's 'make-or-break' time with Lions

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — At the end of Wednesday’s session at training camp, Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs walked off the practice field with safety Glover Quin.

In his third season, Diggs still tries to pick whatever wisdom he can from Quin, who is in his ninth year. It’s a pretty regular occurrence, as many of the defensive backs look to Quin for nuggets they can incorporate into their games.

For Diggs, it’s a critical time in his career, where the Lions are looking for him to be a key contributor in the secondary at nickelback. A sixth-round pick in 2015, Diggs has played in 28 games and has one fumble recovery and no interceptions.

After missing the last four games last season because of a pectoral injury, Diggs is looking to solidify what was, at times, a porous secondary, with more solid play now that he’s completely healthy.

Now is the time.

“The second year to third year is one of the biggest jumps that anybody makes because I’ve always heard the third year is the make-or-break year in the league,” Diggs said Wednesday. “I see a lot of doubters and people trying to sell me short and give me two years. I’m a young guy; I’m 24 and just making strides.”

Some of the inconsistencies were due to young players and new additions to the secondary, but with all of the starting position group returning intact, there’s some optimism that they can make more progress this season.

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With Quin and Darius Slay as the best two in the group, Diggs has plenty of wise counsel he can seek to improve his game. That turns into an almost-daily exercise for Diggs with Quin.

“I learn something from Quin every day; I’m always around Quin,” Diggs said. “It’s been like that; I remember when I got drafted, he was one of the first guys to hit me up.

“I’m from Houston and he stays in Houston. He said, ‘Let’s get to work and I’m happy to have you.' Since that day, I’ve felt so comfortable in that room. Quin played nickel his first few years in the league, so he has experience at that position.”

The competition has gotten deeper at nickelback, though, as the Lions have brought in more suitors for the starting spot. That includes D.J. Hayden from Oakland and Jamal Agnew, a rookie fifth-round draft pick from the University of San Diego.

It’s not Diggs’ job by default, by any stretch of the imagination. He’ll have to work to earn the starting spot — and if he doesn’t distinguish himself, it could be tough to make the roster.

“We’re probably as deep as we’ve been,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “In terms of the competitiveness and what he has to do, he understands it’s a real challenge and a real battle.

“But he’s smart. He knows the defense and he can anticipate. It’s natural that the next level of making plays when he has the opportunity is the thing we’ll be looking for, more often than not.”

Diggs showed another flash during a drill on Wednesday, stepping in front of Golden Tate on a slant route, deflecting the pass from Matthew Stafford and reeling in an interception.

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It was a fine play — the kind the defense didn’t get enough of last season — but one that he has the physicality to make more often. At 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, he’s had to rely more on his physical attributes and athleticism than size.

“I just wanted to go out and make a play for myself and put that on the board and let my guys know I’m back,” Diggs said. “I missed the last five games and that hurt me to death. I just want to be there with my guys and I saw them struggling when I was out.”

After his season-ending injury, Diggs had his arm in a sling and had to watch from home — where he said he found himself yelling at the TV. He wanted to be able to help out and lamented when he saw opportunities that he could have helped but wasn’t able to suit up.

He has his chance now.

In his talks with Quin, one of the best pieces of advice he’s gotten is to tune out the outside noise and keep things simple.

“(Quin said) just be a football player. People get tied into being in the nickel position and they want you to do certain things,” Diggs said. “You’re a linebacker, a defensive back and you have run and pass responsibilities.

“He told me to be a football player and let my instincts take over.”

Every day is another test, but Diggs is up for the challenge.

And with the competition around him, he’ll have every chance to show that he’s the best man for the job, with Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin keeping a watchful eye.

“It’s one of those things where if they have an opportunity and we give them an opportunity to get out there and show what they can do, the cream rises to the top,” Caldwell said.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard