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Imagine if the Detroit Lions just had a decent defense last season. 

Despite finishing 28th in points allowed, Dan Campbell’s squad posted an impressive 9-8 record that included a clean sweep of the division-rival Green Bay Packers. However, one of the main reasons the Lions were left on the outside looking in when the playoffs rolled around surprisingly had nothing to do with Jared Goff

Rather, it had everything to do with a defense that couldn’t consistently keep teams out of the end zone. 

But thanks to a pair of shrewd signings once NFL free agency began, a unit that allowed 25.1 points per game a year ago looks poised to make a significant leap in 2023.

The Lions secured a rock-solid starter by signing Cameron Sutton

Armed with plenty of cap space, the Lions started their offseason by signing former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton to a three-year, $33 million with $22.5 million guaranteed.

Elevated into a more prominent role in the aftermath of Joe Haden’s departure, the 28-year-old showed the ability to play both outside and in the slot. Sutton’s final season with the Steelers saw him record career-highs in interceptions (three) and passes defended (15). The 2017 third-round pick also allowed a career-low completion rate of 47.9% — nearly 20% lower than in 2021. 

Although no one would consider him a shutdown corner, Sutton brings much-needed experience and versatility to a Lions secondary that struggled to slow down opposing passing attacks. Capable of covering slot receivers or battling with bigger wideouts on the perimeter, he gives defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn flexibility to call different coverages–especially with a second veteran defensive back joining the team this offseason.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson gives Aaron Glenn a valuable weapon to deploy

Signing Sutton represented a major upgrade at corner. 

Adding C.J. Gardner-Johnson represented a major upgrade at multiple spots. 

A tough, aggressive, competitive defensive back who shined in his lone season in Philadelphia, the former New Orleans Saint entered free agency with expectations of signing a lucrative multi-year deal. Yet despite leading the league with six interceptions in 2022, Gardner-Johnson waited a while to finally find a new NFL home. 

On Monday, March 19, ESPN reported that the 25-year-old agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million. 

Needless to say, the Lions landed a valuable chess piece for the back end of their defense at a fraction of the price most expected. Gardner-Johnson’s natural ball-hawking skills, combined with his aggressive playing style, should add a game-changing edge to a unit that features promising second-year players in dynamic defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (9.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits) and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (87 tackles).

And if former top-five pick Jeff Okudah builds off his breakout 2022 campaign, the Lions should have one of the better secondaries in the NFC.

Detroit’s defense should look even more dangerous after the 2023 NFL Draft

Detroit Lions helmet
Detroit Lions helmet | Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A strong start to free agency should pave the way for the Lions to do serious damage in the NFL Draft. Thanks to the Jared Goff and T.J. Hockenson deals, Detroit owns multiple selections in each of the first two rounds. Having that type of capital gives general manager Brad Holmes flexibility to maneuver up the board to target a specific player, or he can move back and stockpile more picks. 

Slated to select sixth overall, the Lions can take advantage of a quarterback-heavy draft and choose between a number of high-upside defensive prospects. With Sutton and Gardner-Johnson rounding out a group that includes Okudah and veterans Emmanuel Moseley and Tracy Walker III, Detroit doesn’t have to go corner early.

The smarter play would be to use the No. 6 overall pick on someone who can help Hutchinson and Co. put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. From uber-talented Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter to lengthy Texas Tech edge defender Tyree Wilson to powerful Clemson pass rusher Myles Murphy, the Lions can pick their flavor and bolster their front seven with a blue-chip prospect for the second straight offseason. 

Plus, they have four more top-100 selections that can be used to fortify a roster that came painfully close to earning a postseason berth a year ago. 

And with Aaron Rodgers on his way out of Green Bay, the Lions look capable of becoming the team to beat in the NFC North.


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