Lions will likely rely on Mathis to stabilize weak secondary

Rashean Mathis is coming off a season in which he had 15 passes defended, his highest total over the last seven years.

Tim Fuller

Rashean Mathis won’t go away. He’s one of those veterans who keeps hanging around, picking up paycheck after paycheck in the NFL, even when many are counting him out.

Not a big deal was made when the Detroit Lions signed the free-agent cornerback about three weeks into training camp last year. At best, Mathis seemed headed toward a reserve role, but with the revolving door that has existed in the Lions’ secondary in recent seasons, there was no guarantee how long he would be around.

After all, he was still trying to prove he’d recovered from knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament two years earlier. The end to his career, which included a decade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, appeared inevitable. Probably soon.

But by the end of the season, Mathis had established himself as Detroit’s most reliable cornerback. That’s an indictment of the secondary, but also a compliment to Mathis at the same time.

The team’s No. 1 corner Chris Houston struggled through a miserable season personally and was finally released last week. Youngsters such as Darius Slay and Bill Bentley were banged up and still adjusting to playing one of the league’s most challenging positions.

It sounds funny to say, but…where would the Lions be without Mathis?

The question is can he do it again?

Mathis will turn 34 before the regular-season opener. He’s entering his 12th season in the NFL.

"I’ve been blessed," Mathis, a second-round draft pick by Jacksonville in 2003 coming out of Bethune-Cookman, said of his longevity. "I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great guys who showed me how to take care of my body and I was smart enough to make the right decisions.

"They say you only have a certain amount of cuts in your legs. I guess I’ve been blessed with a certain amount more than most."

The Lions are banking on this being the season that Slay, a second-round pick last year, emerges as a dependable corner in the NFL. There is also speculation that Detroit could add another veteran such as Brandon Flowers, who was recently released by Kansas City after making the Pro Bowl last season.

Maybe Cassius Vaughn, who was signed as a free agent after spending two years with Denver and two more with Indianapolis, establishes himself as one of the Lions’ top cornerbacks. Perhaps Bentley, Chris Greenwood or Jonte Green, all drafted in 2012, figure it all out in their third year in the league.

But for now, based on what we know for certain and not wishful projections, the Lions are going to have to rely heavily once again on Mathis.

He’s coming off a season in which he had 15 passes defended, his highest total over the last seven years. He ended up making 13 starts.

It’s not the ideal situation for the Lions. Mathis isn’t the playmaker that they truly need on the back end. He had no interceptions last year.

But he’s solid. If he can’t perform at the same level, an already weak secondary for the Lions is only going to be that much worse.

Can Darius Slay fill void in Lions' secondary?

Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ new coach, said he’s admired Mathis from afar for years.

"He does a tremendous job of knowing himself and what he can and can’t do," Caldwell said. "He can put himself in the best position to succeed. That’s invaluable."

Mathis also has an infectious personality that is good for the locker room. He’s more than willing to help mentor the young corners like Slay.

"I had ‘Shean talking to me a lot, just making sure I stay focused," Slay said. "He took me in."

Mathis (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) became an unrestricted free agent this offseason. When the Lions re-signed him to a one-year deal, it didn’t draw a lot of attention again.

The assumption at the time was that Houston would be back and team with Slay in the starting lineup. Mathis, more than likely, would be relegated to a lesser role, assuming he still had enough to make the roster.

But that’s now the way it’s looking anymore. Far from it. Mathis and Slay were the top cornerback tandem throughout the team’s offseason practices.

Mathis is adamant that he will be even better than he was last year.

"If I’m healthy, I’m a very good football player," he said. "I thank God I was able to stay healthy last year. Hopefully, I can do the same this year and help this team because if we stay healthy, it’s going to be a great season for us."