Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis utilizes skill, swagger on his ‘Island’


The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Ninth of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position

The NFL’s transition into a passing league has made cornerbacks one of the most important players on the field.

“I think it’s the quarterback first and the defensive back second,” former safety and current NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots told USA Today.

Offenses have gotten complicated and are incorporating so many weapons, that defenses without a gifted corner or two are playing from a disadvantage.

A corner that can shut down half the field and take an offense’s No. 1 receiver out of the game is a defensive coordinator’s dream.

Interceptions don’t accurately measure a cornerback’s effectiveness, either. The truly talented corners don’t get thrown at enough to make an impact with interceptions.

So, taking into account those standards, there are two lockdown corners that stand above the rest: Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders, free agent).

Revis is so good, his real estate on the football field has been coined “Revis Island.”

Receivers rarely get off Revis Island.

Calvin Johnson (Lions) and Andre Johnson (Texans) combined for five catches and 45 yards against Revis last season.

Despite finishing last season with no interceptions and 10 pass breakups, Revis was a unanimous choice to start the Pro Bowl, and earned all-Pro first-team honors.

At only 25, it’s amazing to think Revis might only be reaching his prime.

As for Asomugha, the Raiders couldn’t afford his $16 million price tag, so they voided the contract in January.

With his production — eight interceptions for the Raiders in 2006, teams got wise and stopped throwing at him (three the next four years) — Asomugha will be inundated with calls when free agency opens.

He’ll likely become the richest cornerback in history.

The Lions’ situation at corner is up in the air.

Chris Houston was the most consistent performer last season, but says he’ll test the free-agent market.

Alphonso Smith started 10 games on the right side last season and led the team with five interceptions.

But his confidence seemed to waiver toward the end of the season, especially after a terrible game against the Patriots on Thanksgiving, when he allowed three touchdowns.

Smith is also coming off shoulder surgery that forced him out of the last four games.

The Lions do have a number of other players who’ll compete for time during training camp, including Aaron Berry, Nathan Vasher, Brandon McDonald, Prince Miller and Jack Williams.

But expect the Lions to be big players in a deep free-agency market.

Top 10 corners

 1. Darrelle Revis, Jets: What more can you say about a player who week-in and week-out performers at an all-Pro level against the best receivers? The Jets had the No. 3 defense last season and were No. 6 against the pass, thanks in large part to Revis.

 2. Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders: The three-time Pro Bowler surrendered a mere 10 receptions last season and didn’t allow a touchdown. He’s right there with Revis among the elite.

 3. Charles Woodson, Packers: He’s a jack-of-all-trades for Dom Capers’ defense. He plays corner, safety and rushes the quarterback. A seven-time Pro Bowler, his 92 tackles and five forced fumbles in 2010 were career bests. He’s three interceptions shy of reaching 50 for his career.

 4. Asante Samuel, Eagles: The career leader with four postseason interception returns for a touchdown, Samuel allowed 20 completions and one touchdown in 11 games last season. Unlike Revis and Asomugha, teams continue to target Samuel — and he continues to make then pay (36 interceptions the last five seasons).

 5. Champ Bailey, Broncos: Bailey continued to be one of the most dominant cornerbacks in 2010, with two interceptions and 13 passes defended. At 32, his 10 Pro Bowl appearances are the most by a corner.

 6. Tramon Williams, Packers: Williams certainly benefits from having Woodson on the other side, but he’s a playmaker in his own right. He’s notched 15 interceptions the last three seasons (six in 2010).

 7. Devin McCourty Patriots: His biggest accomplishment last season was earning the starting job on a Bill Belichick-coached defense as a rookie. He rewarded Belichick with 82 tackles, seven interceptions (second in the league) and a Pro Bowl nod.

 8. Dunta Robinson, Falcons: He was the free agent catch of 2010 — and proved it. Teams stayed away from his side of the field, and teammate Brent Grimes benefited. The pair form one of the best secondary duos in the NFL.

 9. Brent Grimes, Falcons: Teams had to pick their poison — pick on Robinson or Grimes? Grimes made them pay when they chose his side of the field. The undrafted corner out of Shippenburg University earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2010, finishing with 87 tackles, five interceptions and 23 pass break-ups.

 10. Antoine Winfield, Vikings: Like Bailey, the 12-year veteran is as productive as ever. He’s one of the best at supporting the run defense — he had 91 tackles last year. He also chipped in two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Schedule

June 22 Quarterbacks

June 23 Running backs

June 24 Receivers

June 25 Tight ends

June 26 Offensive tackles

June 28 Guards

June 29 Centers

June 30 Safeties

July 1 Cornerbacks

Saturday Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 Defensive tackles

ttwentyman@detnews.com

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Lynn Henning: Rest easy Lions fans, this front office has shown draft smarts


Lynn Henning

Allen Park— You can appreciate this about the Lions in the hours before this year’s NFL Draft begins.

No longer is it a simple, or melancholy, exercise studying their first-round options.

The new crew gets it. They have gotten it since Martin Mayhew, Shack Harris and Jim Schwartz began fusing minds and analyses in grabbing college players who would help make the Lions a flesh-and-blood NFL team.

Some folks are waiting before voting. They want to see more later-round success. That’s fair. But if you can pick with smarts in the early rounds, you’ll pick, over the long haul, deftly in the latter rounds.

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It’s what happens early that most matters for any team, particularly one with the Marshall Plan-like reconstruction program the Lions have faced.

Matthew Stafford was the correct pick in 2009, as was their second first-rounder that year, Brandon Pettigrew. Ndamukong Suh was the right guy a year ago, and so, probably, was their decision to trade up and grab Jahvid Best.

Meanwhile, the Lions were at least competent with some later-hour picks in each draft — Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy in 2009; Amari Spievey last year — just as they were shrewd in signing free agents the past two springs.

Common sense and good judgment

This newfangled NFL competency in the Lions’ chambers makes for a particularly gripping guessing game ahead of Thursday night’s first round.

There are now two spheres of thought in Allen Park, which is two more spheres than most of the Lions’ previous front-office regimes demonstrated over 40-plus years.

On one hand, they probably won’t miss if they go for the safe, healthy, talented guy who meets their specifications. There are lots of those available, whether it’s Prince Amukamara, who might help heal a generations-old wound in the Lions secondary, or Anthony Costanzo, the Boston College offensive tackle who could help gird a thin offensive line that won’t have Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola forever.

But what also happens when a front office has a modicum of savvy and confidence is that the brass isn’t afraid to make a risk-reward wager.

And there is your basis for taking a deep breath and rolling the dice on Da’Quan Bowers, the speedy defensive end from Clemson who would be the edge rusher the Lions ideally need if they intend to be anything more than a qualifier for the NFL playoffs.

“Calculated risks make sense,” Mayhew, the Lions general manager, said last week during a news conference at Lions headquarters, where the usual murkiness on draft plans was maintained to a spectacular degree.

The words “calculated risks” were thought — thought — to be a reference to Bowers, whom Mayhew acknowledged was “not in pristine physical condition,” owing to a knee problem that might require microfracture surgery.

It makes you wonder all the more what this consortium might be thinking. The Mayhew-Harris-Schwartz triumvirate (it’s nice that no one seems to care who gets the brunt of the credit on a front-office team that actually behaves like a team) has been proving why the NFL is a competent front office’s best friend.

The league rewards GMs, coaches, and personnel private eyes who demonstrate common sense and good judgment, not that either quality was on display here for the better part of 40-plus years.

The Lions’ new generals had a different plan: They would show competency. And so they delivered the makings of a competitive team last year, which wasn’t much of a surprise after their first two drafts and free-agent springs (following Mayhew’s shrewd trade of Roy Williams the previous autumn).

There was nothing hollow about that 6-10 record or those seven Lions losses by the whopping sum of 27 points. The team was much improved was moving within the area code of becoming a playoff team. Suddenly, foundational talent was being drafted and free agents were no longer the quizzical or gimmicky folks who once arrived at Allen Park for a long, lamentable autumn.

Or, put another way: Charles Rogers and Mike Williams would no more be picked by the new guys than Az-Zahir Hakim or Bill Schroeder would be signed to a nattily generous free-agent deal.

Play it safe or gamble?

So, what do the Lions do Thursday night?

It gets down to which of their two personas they’re going to assume.

If they go safe and steady, it figures be for a guy like Amukamara on defense when the Nebraska cornerback has no disqualifying physical or character hang-ups.

Or, maybe it goes like this: Considering Schwartz’s obvious plan to provide Stafford with all the help a draft and free agency could provide (Pettigrew, Best, Nate Burleson, etc.), it would seem feasible that he will want to dump a bit more concrete into Detroit’s offensive line, which makes Costanzo appealing.

But what if a team has progressed to a point where some derring-do can finally enter their draft psyche?

The Lions might have gotten to that stage in 2011. Getting the potential game-changing pass rusher, even if he won’t be ready to unleash Hades on opposing quarterbacks until next season, makes the Bowers selection doable.

Jimmy Smith, the Colorado cornerback? Another possibility, if the Lions decide the so-called character issues have been explained to their satisfaction.

But if you can take anything from their first two drafts, or anything from the fog Mayhew deliberately spewed last week, it’s this:

Whether they play it safe with a guy like Costanzo, or spin the wheel with Bowers, they’re going to end up with a terrific football player.

Those projections weren’t made in earlier years. They can be now, which is simply one more way of saying the Lions have at last rejoined the National Football League.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

Lions’ draft backup plan could include UCLA’s Akeem Ayers


The Detroit News

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has always entered the draft with the thought of taking the best player available when it’s his time to hand in the draft card.

The best example of that was in 2008, when he picked tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the No. 20 overall pick when the Lions had pressing needs at other positions, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

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ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released his “backup plans” for each team for April’s NFL draft Friday, and Kiper thinks the Lions could go a number of different ways with the No. 13 pick.

“Detroit really needs to get secondary help, but if (Prince) Amukamara is gone, they may feel like Colorado’s Jimmy Smith is a slight reach,” Kiper wrote. “But they need linebacking help too, and (Akeem) Ayers would fit. They could also consider a trade down to get better value with an offensive line pick.”

It’s not too early for Lions fans to think draft

Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park– The Lions lost their ninth game in 11 tries over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. With hopes for a playoff spot dashed for an 11th-consecutive season, it’s not too early to start looking at how this team might improve itself in 2011.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew put together a couple of nice drafts the last two seasons, particularly with top picks Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, and will need to get more help this spring.

Positions in need of upgrades: the secondary, linebacking corps, and offensive line.

So who might the Lions target with another likely top five pick?

After watching Tom Brady slice up the Lions in a 45-24 Thanksgiving Day loss, the early favorite is Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson is a true lockdown corner, something the Lions haven’t had in years.

Peterson (6-1, 222) has drawn comparisons to former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson. Only a junior, he is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top cornerback. He’s also a productive returner, averaging 27.5 yards per kick return and 19.7 per punt.

Peterson has elite size for the position and runs in the 4.3 to 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash.

Other possibilities

Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara could also be an option. Amukamara (6-1, 205) doesn’t have an interception in 2010, but that’s mainly because opposing quarterbacks rarely throw his way.

Amukamara was a late bloomer, making three starts his first two seasons at Nebraska, but has developed into one of the nation’s top defenders. He’s also a finalist for the Thorpe Award.

The year’s cornerback class is deep by draft analysts, and includes other top-flight corners in Brandon Harris (Miami), Janoris Jenkins (Florida), Ras-I Dowling (Virginia) and Aaron Williams (Texas).

On draft day, don’t be surprised, if the Lions bypass all the cornerbacks and decide early to get help at linebacker, especially on the outside.

Veteran outside linebacker Julian Peterson and his $8 million salary are likely gone after the season.

Zack Follett, who started the season at outside linebacker, was lost for the season due to a neck injury and has an uncertain future.

The unit needs a young playmaker alongside middle linebacker DeAndre Levy.

The two best linebacker prospects, according to Kiper, are Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and Von Miller (Texas AM).

Both Ayers (6-4, 255) and Miller (6-3, 243) have terrific size and speed, but are viewed more as 3-4 rush linebackers at the next level. The Lions run a 4-3 base defense.

Later round talents

Other options at linebacker, later in the first round or possibly early in the second round, are Travis Lewis (6-2, 232) of Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Bruce Carter (6-3, 225).

Lewis and Carter are a bit small for Lions coach Jim Schwartz’s scheme, though.