Lions get aggressive in upgrading secondary during free agency

New Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson led the league in interceptions last season despite missing five games. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Suddenly, the glaring holes on last year’s Detroit Lions roster don’t seem as big.

Just one week into free agency, general manager Brad Holmes & Co. tackled the team's biggest offseason need -- the secondary -- reaching a three-year, $33 million deal with former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cam Sutton; a one-year, $6 million contract with ex-San Francisco 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley; and then locking down arguably their biggest splash of the offseason in former Philadelphia Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million.

The Lions also re-signed two of their own free agents in safety C.J. Moore and cornerback Will Harris.

These recent additions are noteworthy because of the potential production they bring to a Lions defense that ranked last in the NFL in total QBR against and raw QBR, and 31st in defensive efficiency (39.59) last season. Gardner-Johnson is coming off a Super Bowl run in which he ended the regular season tied for the most interceptions in the league (6) despite missing five games. Sutton will likely take over the Lions' No. 1 spot at cornerback following a season in which he snagged a career-high three interceptions in addition to 15 passes defended. And Moseley was off to the best start of his career with 22 tackles, five passes defended and an interception in his first five games before being sidelined with a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee (he expects to be ready by the start of the regular season).

But while the group looks good on paper, Detroit's defense still has a lot of work to do on the field. The Lions allowed a league-leading 82 plays of 20-plus yards in 2022, while 23.3% of opponent plays went for 10-plus yards, which was the second-highest rate in NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

If the goal during free agency was to upgrade the secondary, consider it mission accomplished. And the Lions also hold picks No. 6, 18, 48 and 55 in the upcoming draft should they want to bolster the unit further.

Sutton said he wants to be a part of the change with his leadership. He said the move to the Detroit from Pittsburgh “made sense” as the team seems headed in the right direction after experiencing their first winning season since 2017.

He also said “serious is an understatement” with how badly he senses head coach Dan Campbell and Holmes actually want to win.

“I’m head over heels excited about that and just as much as this is a challenge, you really embrace that. It’s gonna be fun,” Sutton said. “I’m not shying away from nothing with all the expectations here or anything that’s needed from me as an individual and we’ll be able to come together.”

Moseley views himself as a physical cornerback, despite his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame, and is looking to bring leadership once he recovers from his injury. The 26-year-old was off to the best start of his career in San Francisco before suffering a torn ACL last October but hopes to be back at full strength before the start of the regular season.

"I love coming up to tackle. I love being up in front of people’s faces, getting my hands on people ... can play off coverage,” Moseley said. “Smart corner, confident corner, and just pretty much a leader. So, that’s pretty much my game.”

Gardner-Johnson is already familiar with Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn from their New Orleans Saints days, when both were members of the coaching staff. Glenn was his defensive backs coach in New Orleans but has known him since his high school days, when they first met at Nike’s The Opening camp in Oregon in 2015.

He describes the connection with Glenn as a “father-son relationship.” Glenn has pushed him to become a better player and a better man as he says he hopes to use those lessons to help lead Detroit's secondary and ultimately the team to success. He anticipates the veteran presence from the new additions rubbing off within the organization.

“The standard that you set as a DB is something that you’ve got to carry with yourself. It has to be the same every day, it can’t change, and I think the model for the group on the back end is the game is won and lost through us no matter what,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Just in the Super Bowl you guys seen, you’ve just got to be on one accord and understand that I can trust my left corner, my right nickel, my left safety, my linebacker.

“It’s all a whole collective effort and I think for this group here, understand the vet presence you’re getting from Cam [Sutton], me and the older guys that are about five years in on this team.”