Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have been blessed with a unique level of continuity in the team’s secondary. After re-signing safety Tavon Wilson and cornerback Nevin Lawson, the Lions essentially return the starting five that has shared the field much of the past three years.
Combined with the free-agent addition of Deshawn Shead, the road to playing time in the back seven is cluttered with experienced options, but a pair of young options are knocking on the door for expanded roles, and through the early stages of the offseason program, are being seriously evaluated as candidates for more playing time in 2018.
This was the blueprint when the Lions drafted Teez Tabor in the second round of the draft last year. The team had the luxury of bringing him along slowly, with Lawson and former first-round pick D.J. Hayden in front of the rookie on the depth chart.
And while fans hated seeing a high-round draft pick glued to the bench, the Lions stuck to the development plan, not providing Tabor meaningful snaps until the second half of the season, and not more than 17 in a game until Week 13.
Tabor's season ended on an ugly note, fracturing his forearm in a collision with Diggs while trying to defend a pass in the season finale. The recovery took about two months and he’s currently wearing a sleeve on the arm, although he says he’s fine. He’s certainly looked fine in the practices that have been open to the media, generally running with the first-team defense.
It hasn’t been without its hiccups, which you might expect drawing assignments covering Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Especially since Tabor is without the benefit of one of the best tools in his skill set, his physicality, which is restricted this time of year. But the obvious growth is there, as was evident in the back-to-back days he intercepted quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Tabor is modest about the way he’s trending, which might surprise those who knew the confident player he was at Florida. Perhaps he was humbled by the patience forced upon him as a rookie, but even he can see his growth in his second season.
“It’s a difference,” he said. “That’s in anything that you do. … Repetition is the father of learning. I got so many reps last year, so many reps this year, and the more reps I’m getting, the better I’m getting.”
A lot has been made about the multiple defensive front being installed by coach Matt Patricia this offseason, but the Lions are trending toward a rotation in the back end, as well. Lawson and Shead are likely to see plenty of snaps during the season, but Tabor has the inside track for a starting job if he can continue to show steady progress through training camp and the preseason.
“There’s a huge transition from first year to second year,” Patricia said last week, answering a question about Golladay that just as easily applies to Tabor. “If you think about it, when you go into your first year, your rookie year, you spend obviously the spring of that year training for a combine or training for interviews. You’re just not really in the mode. And then it’s that big adjustment into the league and that level. The second year is really where you get some time to learn, dive into the details of some of the things you’re doing. “
In addition to Tabor, another member of the 2017 draft class is also being given an extended opportunity to show the coaching staff what he can do. While Wilson continues to be eased into activities following offseason shoulder surgery, the secondary shuffle has opened the door for Jamal Agnew to see steady work with the first-team defense at the nickel spot.
A fifth-round choice out of the University of San Diego, Agnew provided plenty of value to the Lions in his first season, earning first-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner. But somewhat forgotten in the electricity he brought to that role was how much of a playmaking cornerback he was in college, breaking up a school record 48 passes in four seasons.
Like Tabor, Agnew was blocked on the depth chart last season and had to find other ways to contribute. He’s seemingly blocked again this year, with Diggs, and potentially Lawson, primed to see time in the nickel first. That’s not something Agnew can afford to worry about, especially when he's been drawing the daily challenge of covering Tate in these early practices.
“As far as my mentality, getting better every day, there’s something I can definitely get better at guarding Golden Tate every day,” Agnew said. “He doesn’t say anything, but he shows me something I can get better at in my game every day. Like I said, I come out here with my lunch pail packed every day, knowing I have to guard Golden. I know it’s going to be a long day.”
The Lions will enter their summer slumber in the coming weeks, the calm before the storm of training camp. But when the players return late next month, Tabor and Agnew will look to carry their momentum into the preseason and reward the team for its patient approach to their development.