Detroit Lions training camp is almost here and we close out the defensive position battles in our roster preview series by taking a close look at the safety squad. Safeties play a vital role in the Lions shared zone system and the organization has taken a few key steps this offseason to hopefully lock in the position’s future.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out:
Set the table
Last season, the Lions initially kept only four safeties: Tracy Walker and Will Harris were the starters and were backed up by Dean Marlowe and CJ Moore. Jalen Elliott was elevated from the practice squad in Weeks 7 and 8 for depth, and was eventually signed to the active roster in Week 10.
Things were relatively simple for two-thirds of the season, but the last third was filled with a change of players and their roles.
The Lions opted to keep just a nickel corner on their roster last season, and when AJ Parker was injured in Week 11, they looked to Harris to fill the void. The following week, Parker landed on injured reserve and Harris would remain in the slot for the next three weeks, with Marlowe taking the vacant starting safety role. In Week 14, Walker was ruled out due to COVID protocols, but with Parker still out, they opted to keep Harris in and promote Moore to the starting lineup alongside Marlowe.
Parker would return to the slot in Week 15, but in a cruel twist of fate, the Lions lost Jerry Jacobs to an ACL injury, creating a hole in the outside corner. Although Walker was still not cleared to return, the Lions moved Harris to the outside corner and kept Moore and Marlowe in the starting roles. Additionally, with depth issues among defensive backs, the Lions claimed Brady Breeze had claimed waivers. Walker would return in Week 16, sending Moore back to a reserve role, and that’s how things would stay for the rest of the season.
When the offseason began, the Lions only had Harris and Breeze under contract. Their first big move was re-signing Walker to a three-year, $25 million deal, cementing at least a starting role. Then they re-signed Moore to a one-year contract, further solidifying their depth. Additionally, Jalen Elliott was also re-signed but he never made it to spring camp as he was released to make room for the Lions UDFA class.
The Lions also exited the organization to make three additional moves. First, they claimed JuJu Hughes’ waiver during the playoffs, then exercised an ERFA offer on him. Then they signed DeShon Elliott to a one-year deal, and expectations were that he would immediately challenge for a starting role. Finally, the Lions used the No. 97 draft pick to select Kerby Joseph, who has a long-term advantage in that position.
When spring camp arrived, the depth chart became clearer and several players switched roles.
The first noticeable change was Harris taking all of his reps to the outside corner and no longer seemed to be in the safety mix. Defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant insisted that Harris remains a “defensive back” and someone he feels comfortable with in many places:
“I consider (Harris) a defensive back. I think the skills you all saw last year throughout our season are part of why he’s able to move around and plug in and play in different places. His growth has come from being really fundamental on the corner, while understanding the savvy part of the game that comes from safety. I think that’s what he does best. We just have to keep finding ways and roles as staff to put them in the best position to succeed.
While the Lions want to stay flexible with Harris with him no longer taking on safety reps, it paved the way for DeShon Elliott to slot into the starting lineup alongside Walker.
But the coaches added another wrinkle to the mix and gave second-year defensive back Ifetu Melifonwu safety reps. Drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft, Melifonwu played his rookie season at corner, but the 6-foot-3, 205-pound defensive back still showed safety traits, so cross-training in both places made sense.
Now Melifonwu has been out injured for most of the spring, so it’s too early to call this a permanent position change, and the coaches have suggested he might be more of a match player who can line up at the corner and of security. Here is safety coach Brian Duker on Melifonwu getting safety reps:
“It was a good idea (to give him security reps) because of Iffy’s really unique skills and his ability to cover a whole bunch of different positions really well…Let’s just say it’s a really good one. tight end, usually the safeties line up with the tight ends more often, right? So it’s easier for him if he knows the safety comms, it’s kind of a smooth transition. It’s, ‘OK, Iffy, you’re just going to operate as a safety right now and put yourself in the best match for us.’ That’s why you want to do it, so you can kind of put it to best use.
Building the list
With Harris and Melifonwu in hybrid defensive back roles, that leaves the Lions with six pure safeties, and based on history, they likely won’t keep more than four.
Walker is definitely in one of the starting roles, and while Elliott is currently in the other, nothing is guaranteed and he will have to fight to keep his role.
DeShon Elliott broke his forearm as a rookie in Baltimore, came back and won a starting role in Year 2, then was bitten by the injury bug again in Year 3 (biceps and pectoral injuries) and has only played six games in 2021. This injury history was likely a factor in why the Lions only invested in him for one season because when he is healthy he can be a player punchy. He’s clearly the current starter, but he should look over his shoulder all season long at the rookie behind him.
Kerby Joseph is a ball peddling safety that has range for days and is best suited as a single top in a two safety system. He’s still raw — only a year out of college — but he’s already shown his knack for being around the ball in spring camp, making multiple pass breakups and popping an oblique turn for an interception. Duker said during OTAs that Joseph is working and it’s paying off:
“I would say Kerby is actually ahead of what I thought he would be, to be honest with you. I was really pleasantly surprised with him. With him, the most important thing is to learn the verbiage. C It’s so much bigger than it’s used to. So now understanding all the calls that are really involved and sort of bringing your toolbox together is something we’ve talked about a lot.
CJ Moore is one of the Lions’ best special teams players and retains a key role as punter Jack Fox’s personal protector. But he showed last season that he could hold a starting role in a pinch and that he should not be neglected. Here’s Duker talking about Moore’s value:
“We really don’t talk about CJ enough. CJ is really a useful asset for us. In addition to being an excellent special teams player, he is a very good veteran, a very good leader, but he was always ready when his number was called.
Brady Breeze was originally claimed for depth purposes, but he has the drive and determination to make an impact. A legitimate potential sleeper for the job, Breeze has shown he can contribute on special teams, and if he can step up defense, he could stay.
JuJu Hughes was part of the LA Rams UDFA Class of 2020 when Lions General Manager Brad Holmes was their Director of College Scouting. That familiarity opened the door for him to make Detroit’s 90-player roster, but with just 37 defensive snaps over two seasons, he’ll need to elevate his game to move up the ranks.
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott, Kerby Joseph and CJ Moore. It should be noted that we had Melifonwu and Harris included under a wedge designation.
To me, the pecking order is pretty clear. Walker is the top dog, Elliott is his starting mate, Joseph will play and challenge to start over time, Moore is a veteran leader and special teams dynamo, Breeze is the sleeper, and Hughes has some work to do. If they keep four pure securities, I see no reason to change what we initially decided.
So two questions, Jeremy. First of all, are you still with me, or am I oversimplifying? And two, do you still think they’re keeping four safeties with two potential hybrid defenders in Harris and Melifonwu also available?
Jeremy: Yes, I think the pecking order is about as clear as any other position on the list, but that second question is key. With so many pieces able to move in the secondary, has the Lions roster evolved beyond the need for just a special teams ace like CJ Moore? I think the answer to this question will depend on the progress of Kerby Joseph and Ifaetu Melifonwu. If the Lions are comfortable enough that these players can start in a pinch and contribute to special teams, I think it’s entirely possible for the Lions to drop to just three “pure” safeties.
Do you feel the same or are the special teams skills of a guy like Moore so important and irreplaceable?
Erik: Yeah, I’m with you. While I enjoy special teams play and how player contributions lead to roster spots, I think this roster goes beyond the point of keeping players who don’t contribute on offense or defense in one way or another.
That being said, I think Moore is unique in what he does and can play defense, but he’s not irreplaceable – and I think that’s all part of Holmes’ roster design.