(This is the second submission in a series examining the Detroit Lions’ highly scrutinized secondary.)
The Lions could line up for their opening game against St. Louis on Sept. 9 with 21 of the 22 starters on offense and defense from last season.
Who’s going to be that one replacement?
Based on offseason workouts, it appears to be third-year player Aaron Berry, taking over at right cornerback for Eric Wright, who signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay.
Berry received first-team reps during the Lions’ recent minicamp. The job seems to be his to lose at this point although there’s clearly going to be competition from others when training camp opens in just over a month.
You remember Berry. He’s the guy who caused such a fuss when he tweeted “Y’all can go back to being Broke & Miserable” following the Lions’ playoff loss to New Orleans.
Berry had dropped a seemingly easy interception with the Lions trailing by just a field goal in the fourth quarter. After the Saints scored a couple plays later and ultimately put the game away, Berry turned into a target for fan rage.
His tweet was interpreted by many as a shot back at Detroit fans in the wake of the state’s economic woes. Berry deleted the message, indicated he had been misunderstood and eventually shut down his Twitter account.
He will be forgiven, but only if he produces on the field. That’s the best – perhaps only – way of getting back in favor with hardcore football fans.
To this point of his NFL career, it’s difficult to assess whether Berry is the right man to help solidify the Lions’ defensive backfield.
That’s because he’s been injured so much of the time.
“He’s a young, developing player,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “One of his biggest things is being injury-free. He hasn’t been able to do that his first couple years. If he’s able to do that this year, he’ll have a good season.”
Berry, an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh, started the opening game at nickel in his rookie year in 2010. He made an interception but then dislocated a shoulder and was placed on the injured-reserve list for the rest of the season.
He came back last season to play in 11 games, but shoulder problems slowed him down again. He was not at full strength late in the season, including during the playoff game when it was difficult for him just to move his arm.
“We’ve really explained the facts of life to him,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “The most important thing is we’re available and accountable through the season. We can’t have injuries.”
Players don’t always have control over injuries, but Berry is doing his best to prepare for the 16-game grind to avoid them.
He underwent surgery to repair the right shoulder a couple weeks after the season. His weight is up to around 190 pounds.
“He came in here about 115, I think, a couple years ago,” said Cunningham, exaggerating to make his point.
Asked what he really weighed when he joined the Lions, Berry started to giggle. “Probably 172, maybe,” he said.
An extra 10 pounds of muscle added since last season should help him against the bigger, stronger receivers throughout the NFL. Berry was already considered the Lions’ most physical corner.
“These guys are getting bigger and bigger every year,” he said. “You’re going to need the weight, you’re going to need the strength. There’s things you can’t control, but there’s things you can control – eating well, doing what you’ve got to do in the weight room.”
Receiver Nate Burleson calls Berry “one of those feisty cornerbacks who puts his hands on you, locks down on you.”
Chris Houston, the Lions’ other starting corner, considers Berry “very underrated.”
“I like it like that,” Houston said. “That will get some balls thrown (at) him. He can make some plays.
“He’ll come in and pick up where Eric left off. He’s hungry. He’s ready to show people what he’s got.”
Berry pointed out that before his injuries last season, “I was shutting guys down.” But he’s also realistic enough to know that there are still questions concerning his durability and reliability.
“I’ve been up and down,” Berry said. “But if you fight adversity and you get through it, it always helps in the long run.
“I feel like if I could stay healthy then the sky’s the limit. That’s the biggest thing for me, staying on the field.”
The Lions claimed cornerback Dontrell Johnson off waivers from Jacksonville. Johnson (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) is an undrafted rookie out of Murray State. He also was a return specialist in college.
To make room for him on the 90-man roster, Detroit released safety Alonzo Lawrence (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College).