2024 NFL free agency preview: Best cornerback options for Detroit Lions

2024 NFL free agency preview: Best cornerback options for Detroit Lions

On Monday, we took a look at the Detroit Lions’ six biggest needs heading into free agency. Now it’s time to look at how the team may fill those needs during the NFL free agency period, which begins on March 11 with the “legal tampering period.”

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We start with the cornerback position, arguably the team’s biggest need. Last year, the Lions tried to aggressively attack the position by signing Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, while also reportedly trying to trade for Jalen Ramsey.

Considering most of those moves didn’t work out too well—and given some of the rumors from the NFL Combine—it seems like the Lions could, again, take an aggressive approach to fixing the cornerback position. But Lions general manager Brad Holmes continues to preach caution and patience with their free agency process.

So who could the Lions target? Let’s take a look at the top and mid-tier options.

Bears CB Jaylon Johnson, Chiefs CB L’Jarius Sneed

I won’t waste too much space on these two, as it’s unclear if the Lions will have a shot at either. Chicago reportedly wants to re-sign Johnson, while Sneed may only be available via a tag-and-trade. That would mean Detroit would have to spend significant draft capital and around $20 million a year on Sneed. While ESPN seems to suggest the Lions will be in the market for Sneed, I have my doubts.

Next tier options

Dolphins CB Xavien Howard — 30 years old

Estimated contract:

$14-18M per year, via ESPN’s Bill Barnwell

Howard was told he’ll be released by the Dolphins at the start of free agency, which means one benefit of signing him would be that he wouldn’t count against Detroit’s compensatory pick formula (should, say, the Lions let Jonah Jackson go).

Howard was once in the conversation for best cornerback in the league, but he has slowed down considerably and has struggled with injuries. His 2023 season ended with a foot injury, but he appears to doing fine now.

Howard would undoubtedly be an upgrade for what the Lions have because despite grading out below a 60 PFF grade in back-to-back years, he still has a streak of four straight seasons with at least 12 pass breakups (and six of his past seven seasons).

Commanders CB Kendall Fuller — 29 years old

Estimated contract:

Three years, $40M ($25M guaranteed), per PFF
Three years, $42.4M, per Spotrac
Fuller brings similar ball production, with 49 pass breakups and two interceptions over his past four seasons. But his PFF grade has been much higher. He hasn’t graded below a 65 overall since his rookie season, and he’s been over 75 in each of his past three years.

At 5-foot-11, Fuller is a little smaller than the average outside cornerback, but he plays with intensity and is not afraid to get his nose dirty in the run game. He also brings some nickel flexibility, if needed.

Bengals CB Chidobe Awuzie — 28 years old

Estimated contract:

Two years, $21M ($12.75M guaranteed), per PFF
Awuzie looked like a huge, up-and-coming cornerback just a few years ago. In 2021, Awuzie earned a PFF coverage grade of 74.5, and he followed it up with one of the most promising starts in his career. In 2022, he allowed just 18 receptions on 43 targets for a passer rating of 58.2, per PFF. Unfortunately, Awuzie tore his ACL that year, forcing him to miss the second half of the season.

Last year, he had to work his way back into a starting role, but he started to look more like himself at the end of the year. It’s often said that an NFL player doesn’t truly feel like himself until a full year after a torn ACL, so Awuzie could see a resurgence in 2024 and would bring some elite athleticism to the position.

Cowboys CB Stephon Gilmore — 33 years old

Estimated contract:

One year, $10M ($10M guaranteed), per PFF
One year, $11.1M, per Spotrac
Signing Stephon Gilmore to pair with his younger brother Steven would make for an awesome story. It makes plenty of logical sense, too. Gilmore still has some fuel left in the tank after logging 13 passes defended and two interceptions and starting all 17 games for the Cowboys last season. And if he’s chasing one more ring, Detroit is not a bad place to find yourself.

More value options
Texans CB Steven Nelson — 31 years old
Estimated contract:

Two years, $14.5M ($8.5M guaranteed), per PFF
Three years, $30.7M, per Spotrac
There’s obviously a wild disparity here on what Nelson would cost here, but at 31 years old, I tend to think he’ll be closer to PFF’s estimate. That said, Nelson likely earned himself a bit of a raise after recording a career-high five interceptions in 2023 (including a pick-six in the playoffs). Nelson is coming off a two-year, $9 million contract.

Nelson comes with plenty of experience, has been reliably healthy for most of his career, and will often line up in the box in run support. This is one of my favorite free agent options if Detroit doesn’t go all-in at the position.

Giants CB Adoree’ Jackson — 28 years old

Estimated contract:

One year, $7M ($4.75M guaranteed), per PFF
Four years, $45M, per Spotrac
Again, there is a pretty significant disparity here between the estimates of Jackson’s value. That likely has to do with a very poor 2023 season from Jackson. He earned just a 48.6 PFF grade last season, but he was a very strong player for the Giants in the previous two years.

Jackson is a bit of an injury risk. He has missed 28 games in the last four seasons combined, including at least three in each season. That said, he looked much more like himself in the second half of the season after returning from a toe injury.

Titans CB Sean Murphy-Bunting — 26 years old

Estimated contract:

One year, $4M ($3.25M guaranteed), per PFF
Two years, $13.5M, per Spotrac

Murphy-Bunting, a former second-round pick, hasn’t ever really lived up to his draft billing. He does have some ball skills, as evidenced by his eight interceptions in five years, but the consistency in coverage has not been there.

Murphy-Bunting does bring some nickel versatility, though, and could come in as a Will Harris replacement with a much higher upside, considering he’s still just 26 years old.

Patriots CB Myles Bryant — 26 years old

Estimated contract:

Two years, $7M ($3.25M guaranteed), per PFF

Signing former Patriots comes with its own warning, but Bryant is the kind of do-it-all player that the Lions would love. As an undrafted player, Bryant has had to put in the hard work to see the field, mostly playing special teams his first two seasons before becoming a somewhat regular starter in each of the past two years. His stats aren’t exactly eye-popping, and you don’t want to go into the season with Bryant as your Plan A for a starting job, but he would provide some excellent competition in training camp and valued depth/special teams play during the year.

Bargain bin

Chargers CB Michael Davis — 29 years old
Estimated contract:

Two years, $4.7 million, per Spotrac

Davis has had a Jekyll and Hyde career. In 2020 and 2022, he produced 33 total pass breakups and four interceptions, while allowing a passer rating of just 76.6. But in 2021 and 2023, he managed just 15 pass breakups and two interceptions, allowing a combined passer rating of 109.5. Last year, he allowed a career-high 788 yards, nine touchdowns, and a 65.6 completion percentage.

But if the Lions think they can bring out some of those positive seasons, Davis will likely come cheap and with a ton of starting experience (74 games).

Jaguars CB Tre Herndon — 28 years old

Hernon is different from everyone else on this list because he’s likely headed for a nickel cornerback competition somewhere. The Lions aren’t really in the market for that, considering how well Brian Branch played last year. That said, Detroit could always use more depth, and they just so happen to have Herndon’s position coach from the past two seasons in new defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend.

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