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Is Darius Slay an Elite Cornerback?

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We asked PFF’s Brett Whitefield to help us settle the debate.

Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

In January of 2016, when I was at SideLion Report, I asked the question “Is Darius Slay the NFL’s next shutdown corner?” Here we are almost two years later, and I still can’t say it’s a definitive yes. I need answers.

So today I enlisted the help of our friend Brett Whitefield from Pro Football Focus Detroit to help me try to figure out once and for all if Darius is one of the best in the game.

Through the last three weeks, Darius has been near masterful on the field. And his competition hasn’t been a cake walk. He’s lined up against Larry Fitzgerald, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones.

In that time, he’s allowed a catch rate of 58.3% and passer rating of 38.9. That’s good for fourth in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

To add a little more flame to that fire, Slay has two interceptions, which is tied for first in the NFL, and has six passes defensed—second most in the league. And if you're into tackle stats, Slay has the 14th-most of all corners.

To turn that fire into a five alarm, which, to be honest right now, is a term I don’t understand, Pro Football Focus came out with this little stat Monday morning.

All of this stuff looks elite. But we’re only three games in. If Darius keeps up this type of play all season long, then we clearly know the answer is that he is elite. But according to Whitefield, those numbers could be destined to worsen.

“Slay's low passer rating against so far this year has much to do with his interceptions,” Whitefield said. “It's safe to assume he won't sustain the pace he is on and even with a great season it wouldn't be unreasonable to see that number rise a bit.”

In the past two years, Slay’s passer rating allowed has been a lot higher. In 2015 he allowed a passer rating of 93.4. In 2016, he allowed 92.6. That’s far from the best, but it’s also far from the worse. It’s that little meaty section in the middle.

The worse belongs to Sherrick McManis and Keith Reaser. They allowed a passer rating of 147.6 and 142.6 respectively. Josh Norman’s 54.0 in 2015 and Xavier Rhodes 47.0 in 2016 represents the best.

However, there is a reason for Slay allowing such a high passer rating. Allow Brett Whitefield to explain.

“Statistics can be indicative of performance, but they can also warp and mislead without the context of play-by-play grading.” Whitefield said. “In 2015 Marcus Peters led the league with eight interceptions as a rookie, but he was also the most targeted corner in football (and of the last 10 years), and gave up almost 1,000 receiving yards. He allowed the second most touchdowns at the same time as getting all those picks.

"Slay's numbers in 2015 aren't fantastic, but he made plenty of plays in there and didn't make many mistakes. He had the fourth-best tackling efficiency in the league, notched 10 PDs, was only flagged three times all season (Brandon Browner had 23). When you add in the fact that the Lions play a lot of zone that typically invites more completions than man-heavy schemes, he's a player that outperformed his numbers when you break down the tape.”

Slay’s catch rate is right in line with what he’s produced over the last two seasons. His 58.3% completion percentage allowed this year matches right up with 59.4% from last season and his 64.4 from 2015. It’s pretty clear that passing towards Slay is a risk.

That’s especially true for receivers running in or out routes. Pro Football focus named Slay the best in the business in covering such routes last season.

That’s something that Slay has carried over into this season.

So this brings us again to the same question again. Is Darius Slay elite? We’ve seen what Slay can do against the best receivers in the league. Throughout his entire carerr, he’s shut down Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson and Odell Beckham Jr .to name a few. But he still struggles in areas. Whitefield explains what the biggest issue is.

“Slay has definitely shown the ability to play at near elite levels," Whitefield said. “For him it's about playing at such a level consistently.”

Pro Football Focus currently has Slay ranked at 22nd overall with a grade of 82.0. This is a touch down from last year’s 83.2 grade, and an even farther fall from his 86.6 grade in 2015.

So with everything we learned today from the stats and Brett Whitefield all rolled together, what’s the answer here?

The answer is that Darius Slay is a very good corner in the NFL, and he has what it takes to be the best or one of the best. But as for right now, he’s just really good. Perhaps Slay can continue to rise in 2017 and push himself into that elite category. One thing is for sure though, the Lions and their fans should be happy they have him.