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'Savvy, smart': Unknown Tony McRae might be better than expected for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions were active in free agency, checking off several items on the shopping list with big-ticket additions. They spent $50 million on right tackle, signed a former Pro Bowler to replace Darius Slay at cornerback and snagged a couple Patriots starters to plug holes on the defense. 

It's understandable if you missed the Tony McRae signing. 

Tony McRae

To be fair, McRae is a bit of an unknown. An undrafted rookie out of North Carolina A&T in 2016, he bounced around four rosters his first year in the league before sticking in Cincinnati, where he spent the past three years.

And while it's always easy to draw the connection between former Patriots and Lions coach Matt Patricia, McRae was following another coach to Detroit, new special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs. 

"That played a lot with me coming over," McRae said. "I wanted to come over especially with a guy already I was already familiar with." 

More: Lions camp observations: Defense gets upper hand but Jamal Agnew continues to star (subscription required)

A special teams standout with the Bengals, on a surprisingly good special teams unit, the Lions thought he could similarly contribute in those areas here. But throughout training camp, McRae has been a pass-breakup machine, proving he could offer some meaningful depth at nickelback, where the Lions are lacking behind Justin Coleman after shifting Jamal Agnew to offense. 

“Very savvy player, smart, and he’s got great quickness, great short-space quickness, and really does a good job at top-of-the-route stuff right now," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "He’s done a really good job of playing up and through the pocket and playing the hands in some of the passing situations. He just plays hard, plays aggressive."

Through the first week of practices, McRae blended into the background, but that changed on Sunday, when he broke up one pass, then another, then another. He finished the day with four and has sustained that playmaking momentum through the week. 

Some of sluggish start was picking up a new system, and the tweaks to his techniques the Lions coaches were asking him to play, but McRae said things clicked when he followed one piece of advice from Detroit's coaches: Be more aggressive. 

"I don't know, sometimes it's just that feeling, like I was just in the right places, doing what the coaches told me to do and I just tried it and ended up being in the right spots every time," McRae said. "It worked out."