The first seven games have been a tale of two seasons for the Detroit Lions. A promising 2-0-1 start and a competitive contest against the Chiefs gave fans a ton of optimism for the rest of the year. A month later, the Lions sit just 3-3-1, three games behind the division-leading Packers and stuck in the middle of a congested NFC Wild Card mess.
Whether the Lions should be buyers or sellers at the NFL trade deadline depends on how the team sees itself. On one hand is a team with its schedule set to open up and a DVOA in the top-half of the league. On the other is a side that has struggled to look convincing for much of the season with holes in too many areas.
If the Detroit front office takes a good, hard look at the roster as a whole, it will see a team that is still a tier below legitimate playoff contenders. While this does not mean blowing up the entire organization, it should lead to some action before Tuesday’s deadline.
The Lions must trade Darius Slay
Darius Slay is a fan favorite. A Pro Bowler. An All-Pro. A top-three player on this team. All of these reasons make him extremely difficult to trade, yet all of these reasons are the biggest drivers for sending him away.
If Detroit is ready to move on from this season, it would make a world of sense to trade Slay now. Slay is under contract through 2020 and will surely be looking for a nice payday when he hits the market. Are the Lions willing to commit double-digits in average annual value to a player nearing 30 with some injury concerns?
There is no denying that Slay is part of the team’s foundation, but trade or not, he is likely gone soon anyway. It may seem harsh to think this way, but the Lions would be better off getting something for him now then letting him walk away for nothing other than a shot at a compensatory pick in a year and a half.
Slay is absolutely a cornerstone of this defense, but odds are that his production will soon wane anyway. There have already been signs of a slowdown in both performance and health, and there is not a clear succession plan in place. There needs to be some new (younger) faces that can step into bigger roles, and some extra picks and cap space are the way to achieve that.
Finding the right price
Like any potential trade, Detroit can only make a move if the return is good enough. Many think that the Quandre Diggs swap was not great value for the Lions, but perhaps the front office is trying to get whatever it can from players while there is still a potential for trades. Objectively, Diggs was having a down season—and struggling to stay healthy—and getting anything in return might have been the best play there.
Now, the situation with Slay is totally different, where only a hefty price should be accepted. The recent Jalen Ramsey trade should be a good benchmark; the Jaguars received two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick for a player with two years left on his rookie deal. While Ramsey’s 2019 cost is much lower than Slay’s, he will be more difficult to re-sign due to his age. Both will be free agents at the same time and their on-field performances are close.
Off the field, it would be hard not to give the edge to Slay. While Ramsey made plenty of headlines earlier this year with his desire to get out of Jacksonville, Slay has always been a model professional and leader for this team. Like Diggs, losing Slay would be a tough blow to the team’s culture. Given his skill and lack of red flags, almost any playoff contender would be interested in acquiring him.
Making the hard decision
If any team came calling and offered a pair of firsts, similar to what the Rams paid for Ramsey, it would be impossible for the Lions to say no. First-round picks are definitely a gamble, but it would be a gamble to hold on to Slay as well. Cornerbacks do not age particularly well, and paying top dollar for one seems foolish.
Slay is going to be gone from Detroit after 2020 one way or another, so the question becomes how necessary he is over the next season and a half. Given how this season is going, it is clear that the Lions have plenty of needs remaining on the roster and are not true contenders. Now is likely the time they could get the most in return for a player like Slay, despite his recent hamstring problems.
Some of the comments Slay made in the aftermath of the Diggs trade may have been coming from the heat of the moment, but there is a real possibility that he is feeling upset about everything that has happened. There is not a ton of bad blood here, but the timing seems perfect for both parties to do what is best for them and to move on. Trades like this are never emotionally easy, but that just proves how valuable of an asset he truly is.
It would hurt to lose Darius Slay. It would be frustrating to call it quits on the 2019 season. But if the job of the front office is to position this team for long-term success, it would be irresponsible to not try to move Slay before this deadline. The Lions’ roster is absolutely moving in the right direction, but the job is not done. Slay has been a fan favorite and a huge part of this team, but objectively looking forward, a pair of future firsts and a chunk of cap space are simply more valuable.