Lions 2019 draft preview: Detroit searches for Darius Slay's long-term sidekick
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each position. Today: Cornerbacks.
► Current roster: Darius Slay, Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Mike Ford, Marcus Cooper, Dee Virgin, Andre Chachere
► Short-term need: Five out of 10
► Long-term need: Eight out of 10
► Top prospects: Greedy Williams, Byron Murphy, Deandre Baker
► Mid-round options: Justin Layne, Sean Bunting, Amani Oruwariye
► Late-round fits: Iman Marshall, Jordan Miller, Corey Ballentine
As long as the Lions have Darius Slay, the franchise is in decent shape at cornerback. Sure, you can always use several talented, productive defensive backs, but finding an elite, cover corner who can shadow an opponent's top receiver, that's difficult to secure.
Opposite Slay has been an issue for the Lions. For the past few years, it's been Nevin Lawson manning the spot. And he did some things really well, primarily limiting overall production with his physical, aggressive style of play on the outside.
But Lawson also struggled with penalties and playmaking. He never broke up more than nine passes in a season, and tallied just nine the past two years combined. He also failed to record an interception in 54 career starts. According to data tracked by Pro Football Reference, that's the most starts without a pick by a cornerback in NFL history.
Ford, an undrafted rookie last year, started four games and battled through predictable inconsistencies. Tabor, the former second-round pick, has yet to put it together as a professional, allowing a perfect passer rating against on throws his direction in 2018. Cooper and Melvin, two big-framed veterans on one-year deals, bring starting experience to the table.
Melvin is coming off a down year with Oakland, but plenty of that can be attributed to the Raiders' non-existent pass rush. Still, he's managed to break up 22 passes his past 24 games.
At the nickel spot, which has become a starting position in the pass-happy NFL, the Lions cut a big check this offseason to bring in former Seahawk Justin Coleman. He should improve the team's coverage in the middle of the field.
So in the draft, Detroit should be on the lookout for a long-term pairing with Slay.
Unfortunately, there isn't a great option for the team to consider with the No. 8 pick. But if general manager Bob Quinn orchestrates a trade down or two, Washington's Byron Murphy fits the bill as a playmaking option.
On Day 2, there's a trio of local options who could merit interest — Michigan State's Justin Layne, Michigan's David Long and Central Michigan's Sean Bunting. All three have adequate size and supplemented good college careers with strong testing performances at the scouting combine.
In the late rounds, the Lions are less likely to find an instant starter. A major conference standout, such as Texas' Kris Boyd or USC's Iman Marshall could be there in the early stages of the draft's final day. Boyd struggled a bit against top receivers, but broke up 17 passes last year, while Marshall has excellent size to play press and support the run defense.
Another option worth considering on Day 3 is Corey Ballentine, who starred at Division II Washburn. He'll need plenty of work polishing his technique, but he has good speed and leaping ability to pair with ball skills he flashed in college.
Scoring a corner who can contribute early, or at the very least can take over the starting spot in 2020, would go a long way toward solidifying Detroit's secondary and complement the work Quinn has done with the team's defensive front the past 12 months.