Expectations are high for the Lions’ defense in 2023 in large part due to the additions made in their secondary. Free agent signing C.J. Gardner-Johnson and rookie Brian Branch are among the new faces on the backend, and they could each find themselves in the starting lineup come Week 1.
Gardner-Johnson’s status as a first-teamer has not been in question, of course, after he posted six interceptions with the Eagles last year despite missing five games. The 25-year-old surprisingly only parlayed that into a one-year deal with $6.5MM guaranteed in free agency. His move to Detroit was expected to result in a return to his more familiar slot corner role (as opposed to the safety spot, where he spent most of his time in Philadelphia).
However, a knee injury Gardner-Johnson suffered early in training camp left him sidelined for a stretch. That opened the door to Branch filling in at the nickel spot, and his performances since then have him firmly in the mix for a starting role. The second-rounder has likely played his way into a first-team position, or at least notable rotational duties, as detailed by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Branch was lauded as one of the most versatile players in the 2023 class, but playing him at corner would open up the possibility of moving Gardner-Johnson back to safety.
Doing so would represent a change in approach compared to earlier in the offseason, but it could allow the Lions to deploy their ideal combination of defensive backs. Gardner-Johnson shifting back to safety would relegate Tracy Walker to backup duties while he rehabs the Achilles tear which ended his 2022 season. The latter had paired with 2022 third-rounder Kerby Joseph last year.
Head coach Dan Campbell recently noted that Walker is still in consideration for a starting position, however, so plenty is yet to be determined (aside from Joseph’s first-team certainty) as the preseason approaches. Branch will be a key player to watch during exhibition season as he looks to win a starting gig right away, something which would put the versatility of Detroit’s new and highly regarded secondary to the test early in the campaign.