The Detroit Lions have agreed to terms with free agent cornerback Cameron Sutton on a three-year deal. Sutton will officially join the Lions on Wednesday once the NFL’s free agent signing period and new league year begin.
What are the Lions getting in Sutton?
Sutton, 28, comes from Pittsburgh, where he’s spent his entire six-year NFL career. He was a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL draft out of Tennessee, taken two slots ahead of where the Lions selected WR Kenny Golladay.
The 5-11 Sutton didn’t play a lot in his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, playing primarily as a dime back and fill-in. He was on the field for less than a quarter of the defensive snaps each season, though Sutton did get considerable duty on special teams.
His role increased in 2020, when he emerged as a starting slot corner while Mike Hilton was injured. He outplayed Hilton and seized a full-time starting role in both 2021 and 2022.
Sutton’s best attribute is his footwork. He’s quick and balanced, capable of changing directions on the fly and sticking on a receiver’s hip while in man coverage. He’s proven he can do that both on the outside and in the slot. Sutton is instinctive and anticipates routes well from a pre-snap look.
He’s coming off his best season, and it’s a year where he spent more time playing outside than in the slot. Pro Football Focus charted him aligning outside on 655 snaps to just 185 in the slot. Two of his three worst coverage grades came in games (Week 2 vs. NE, Week 16 vs. LV) where he spent more time inside.
The Steelers played a lot of Cover-3 and Cover-1 zone, more than they did man coverage. Sutton worked better outside in zone partly because of his biggest weakness: tackling.
Sutton isn’t a big guy at 5-11 and a listed 188 pounds, and he doesn’t play with a lot of power. He will leave his feet early on tackle attempts at times, as well as aiming too high without the strength to make that work consistently. He’s more reliable at terminating pass plays when he gives up a completion than he is in run defense.
The Steelers often used some man-under coverage when he was in the slot, notably in 2022. That gave Sutton a chance to make more plays on the ball. He responded with a career-high three INTs and 15 PDs in 16 games. Two of his three INTs came from the slot.
He’s good and aggressive with the ball in the air and can get his head around to locate the throw adeptly when aligned outside. His long speed is only average, though there are instances of him putting on the afterburners and covering more ground than expected (ask the Bengals).
Role in Detroit
It’s unclear exactly where the Lions see Sutton schematically, but the size of the contract gives a big hint that he’ll play outside. Paying $11 million for a slot corner is excessive though not unprecedented. That lofty figure indicates Sutton will get a chance to take over one of the outside CB spots.
The Lions have needs both outside and in the slot. With Jeff Okudah’s future uncertain and both Mike Hughes and Will Harris free agents, there is room for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to find the best combination. Expect Sutton to start outside but possibly bump inside in packages.
Signing Sutton shouldn’t diminish the need for the Lions to draft at least one more cornerback; they’re losing three of their top five CBs in the rotation from 2022 and desperately needed upgrading to begin with. Sutton is an experienced starter who certainly helps lift the overall unit, but he’s not the final answer to the CB puzzle.