DeShon Elliott 'has the edge' on starting safety job; Lions looking for depth
Allen Park — Like many positions on the defensive side of the ball, the Detroit Lions' depth chart at safety is a bit fluid heading into training camp.
Despite safeties coach Brian Duker being reluctant even to say that Tracy Walker would be a starter in week one — "We're obviously still hoping to have some competition, still want guys to push him," Duker said — it seems implied that veteran DeShon Elliott would start alongside Walker if the season started today.
"Right now, DeShon just has the edge in terms of veteran experience," Duker said. "That helps with his communication and how quickly he sees things, so that kind of puts him in the lead right now."
Behind Walker and Elliott, a fifth-year veteran who inked a one-year deal with Detroit in April, the Lions are littered at safety with recent mid-to-late-round draft picks and relative newbies looking to carve out a role at the position.
Could one of them push Elliott for a starting role? It's certainly possible.
But at the same time, Duker's tenure as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens (2018-20) overlapped with the early stages of Elliott's career — when Elliott was trying to push veterans for playing time, just as Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu and others are trying to do now. Perhaps the expectation is for the young crop of safeties to grow simply by having Elliott as an example.
"When DeShon was a rookie, I think we had Eric Weddle there in Baltimore, so he really learned from a really good vet, guys like that. He had a chance to see what good players looked like and how they act and what they do. So DeShon, his work ethic and habits started to mirror some of that," Duker said, adding that when Elliot signed in Detroit, "(We) knew we were going to get a really good veteran, a guy that knows how to practice, a guy that knows how to prepare and a guy that has good leadership for the young guys."
That has noticeably included Joseph, who Duker said has made an effort to learn from both vets in the group.
"He's come in as a humble rookie, which is something we certainly appreciate," Duker said. "You recognize he's got two good, experienced guys ahead of him and just try to learn everything he can from them."
A litany of injuries in Detroit's secondary last season forced C.J. Moore into more action than was probably expected.
While it's highly improbable that Moore will be vying for a starting role come training camp, he's not a forgotten piece in Detroit's secondary and special teams by any stretch.
"We really don't talk about C.J. enough. C.J. is a really useful asset for us," Duker said. "In addition to being a great special teams player, he's a really good veteran, a really good leader, but has always been ready when his number is called."
The Lions hold a general philosophy to put players in positions that maximize their skill sets and clearly remain optimistic about what Moore brings to the table. So even after adding starting depth to a position where Moore only saw a little over 13% of snaps last season, it seems likely that he'll be given his fair cut of opportunities to make the roster.
"He's awesome because, again, just talking about skill sets, he's kind of a bigger-framed guy, so we've seen him in a bunch of dime (defenses) last year. He does a really good job with that," Duker said. "He knows a lot of spots because he's really smart. He has really good speed. He can cover a lot of guys, so he really lets us put some different matchup pieces together, as well, because of his skill at dime, particularly."
Assuming that Walker and Elliott are the Week 1 starters at safety and Joseph and Melifonwu — who was drafted as a cornerback but got looks at safety during spring — are locks to make the roster behind them, that leaves room for a nice healthy competition to fill out the depth chart.
The versatility that Detroit has built into its secondary — Will Harris has essentially swapped positions with Melifonwu by switching to cornerback — makes it a little hard to predict exactly how many players they'll carry at safety entering the season, but a player to watch for come training camp is Brady Breeze.
Breeze, a sixth-round pick by the Titans in 2021, wasn't able to show much after being claimed by the Lions off waivers in December. But after getting more acclimated with Detroit's system, Duker likes the development he's seen.
"He's been able to grasp a little bit of mastery of the system. His communication really flows kind of easily for him," Duker said. "I think we've seen his growth in the mental side of the game from him. He's always been a good athlete. He came in right away and was a good tackler last year. … So just to compound some of those things that he's done is really being able to disguise within the system and be aggressive."