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Lions’ commitment to Teez Tabor might have cost them another gem at cornerback

ALLEN PARK — Back in October, when the Lions couldn’t cover anyone and when Teez Tabor was playing his way toward the bench, Detroit gave a promotion to a cornerback it had been studying for a month in practice.

The Lions called up Cre’Von LeBlanc, the 24-year-old they scooped up from Chicago at the start of the season, for a critical game against the Packers. They played him 26 snaps, and they beat Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay. LeBlanc wasn’t great, but it was his first game active, and the need for cornerbacks only rose a little more when Jamal Agnew seriously hurt his knee that same game.

But that was essentially the last of LeBlanc in Detroit’s secondary. He played three snaps over the next two games before the Lions released him to make room for wide receiver Andy Jones, only for the Eagles to claim LeBlanc off waivers.

Philadelphia had already traded for Golden Tate to try to launch a defense of its Super Bowl crown, but it’s arguable that the more impactful Lion has been LeBlanc. In nine games with the team, LeBlanc has become a full-time player at what was its weakest position. He hasn’t made many impact plays, but he has brought steadiness to a critical position. In the regular season, he allowed a quarterback rating of 92.7, per Pro Football Focus, which is just below the average NFL team’s quarterback rating of 93.8.

After another rough first game in which Philadelphia allowed 48 points to New Orleans, the Eagles have allowed 19 points per game and are 6-1. He’s done enough in the Eagles’ divisional playoff run that former Lions coach Jim Schwartz told Philadelphia reporters that the scouting department’s find of LeBlanc “might have saved our season.”

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc (34) breaks up a pass intended for Chicago Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller (17) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)  Nam Y. Huh

Hindsight is always 20/20 with these decisions, especially as the roster churns so rapidly during the season to compensate for injuries, which Detroit was doing at receiver at the time. LeBlanc had a rough time in coverage in his first game up with the Lions, and they clearly still believed some in Tabor, a second-round draft pick still early in his second year.

However, to move on from LeBlanc after Agnew went on injured reserve was a choice they decided to make even after giving LeBlanc such a long look. They not only had him in practice for the first month of the season, but they also saw him twice when he played on the Bears in 2016 and 2017, including when he picked off Matthew Stafford and took it to the house.

Lions defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said the Lions’ up-tempo and physical practices emulate game speed closely enough that it becomes easy to evaluate which players can play and which cannot. That’s how he decided undrafted cornerback Mike Ford was ready to come up and make an impact and how he knew Tabor wasn’t ready to play in Weeks 12-16, when he failed to see a single play on defense.

But the Lions chose to keep moving with Tabor in the weeks after they let LeBlanc go, and it didn’t turn out as planned. Tabor became the only cornerback with at least 100 coverage snaps to allow a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 since Pro Football Focus started charting data in 2007.

It was a tough sophomore campaign for the draft pick that general manager Bob Quinn said he spent more time scouting than any other in his NFL career.

“Has Teez played as good as I would’ve hoped? No. I’ll be honest with you, no,” Quinn said. “I’ve never stood up here and said, ‘I’m going to hit 1,000 percent on my batting average in free agency or the Draft.’ If I did, we’d win every game and we’d be 16-0 going to the Super Bowl.

“I know one thing, that I’m very confident with the decisions that we make about player acquisition. Teez hasn’t probably played as well as I would’ve hoped, but I think there’s still upside there.”

Even if Quinn is confident in his player decisions, he has to be hoping LeBlanc doesn’t turn out to be the one who got away.

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