With news that Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay is sitting out Organized Team Activities and likely seeking a new contract, the response has been predictable. Many fans are upset that Slay isn’t being a “team player,” while others are panicking that the Lions need to do everything they can just to keep him around.
And while the timing certainly isn’t convenient for the Lions—they’re coming off a rough year, just spent a ton of money in free agency that may tie up a lot of money down the road, and Slay still has a few years left on his contract—this actually isn’t all that complicated.
Darius Slay has every right to fight for a new contract, and the Lions should seriously consider getting a new deal done as soon as possible. Let’s break down why.
“Just honor your contract”
Perhaps the most common complaint I’ve heard about Slay—or any other player wanting an extension/restructure—is that they signed the deal a few years ago and need to honor it. This is easily the laziest argument made by fans, as it has no scope on how NFL contracts work.
How often have we heard about teams asking a player to take a restructure? How often have we’ve seen players become cap casualties because they were unwilling to restructure that deal? This is just players using that same leverage. Instead of “take a paycut or find a job elsewhere” players are simply saying the opposite: “pay me more, or I’ll find a job somewhere else.”
This is how leverage works in NFL contract negotiations. No side is right or immoral or ungrateful. This is simply each side doing what’s best for them.
No holdout yet
Now, in Slay’s case, let’s be clear. He hasn’t threatened to play anywhere else or sit out a year or anything like that. He’s only missed voluntary workouts and OTAs. Again, this is something that has become so pervasive that it’s just how negotiations work in this league, and both players and coaches know it’s not that big of a deal at this point in the offseason.
Here’s Matt Patricia on Slay and Daman Harrison Sr. missing Week 1 of OTAs:
“Back in the day, I’ve had other great players, really great ones on my defenses before—just whatever the situation was, they have other offseason routines that are agreed, or talked about, or kind of just gone through, so everybody’s on the same page with all that stuff,” Patricia said.
Yes, veteran players like Slay and Harrison are still working hard. Yes, they’re still working out. Yes, they fully intend on playing this year. They’re just not working out with the team right now, and in a lot of cases, they’ve already made agreements with the team. No drama here.
“He’s already getting paid so much”
In the case of Slay, an argument could be made he’s getting his worth. Looking at 2019 cap hits among NFL cornerbacks, and Darius Slay ranks.... wow, first. What is he even complaining about?
Well, cap hit isn’t exactly a practical way to look at it from the players’ point of view. Slay isn’t just being handed a paycheck for his $15,934,375 cap hit—that number just represents how he fits in the Lions’ budget. That’s the team’s point of view.
For Slay, his annual salaries for 2019 and 2020 are $12.55 million and $10 million, which rank second and 12th respectively. That’s a clearer picture of the money Slay will actually be seeing over the next few seasons, and while those aren’t exactly bad figures for a Pro Bowl cornerback, should he actually be earning less than the likes of Janoris Jenkins and Desmond Trufant, who have a combined seven interceptions over the past two years (Slay has 11?
Look at the newest contracts signed by NFL cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes got a five-year deal worth an average salary of $14 million. Xavien Howard got a five-year deal for an average of $15.05 million. That’s obviously the range Slay is looking for, and he’s arguably worth it.
Why this year?
Slay has two remaining years, and it’s commonly thought that player negotiations should take place the year before the player becomes a free agent. So why now?
Well, part of it may have to do with the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current CBA is set to expire in 2020, and while current talks between the NFL and NFL Players association are currently optimistic, that could change at any moment. With next year being the crucial year towards either an agreement or a strike, the future of NFL contracts is unclear.
By getting a big extension this year, Slay would be securing his future in an uncertain time.
And for cornerbacks, it’s important to get paid while you can. Top-tier cornerback very rarely get two big extensions during their NFL careers. How many times have you heard the term “wrong side of 30?” Well, Slay is currently 28. He’s nearing that edge.
Just look around the league right now. All of the best cornerbacks in the league have yet to receive that lucrative second extension. Aqib Talib: Still playing on his six-year extension from 2014. Josh Norman: working off his 2016 five-year deal. Even a guy like Richard Sherman didn’t really get to cash in on his third contract (although being his own agent didn’t help). His three-year deal with the 49ers puts him at an average salary of $9.05 million (20th), granted there was a significant injury risk there.
The most recent example of a cornerback who cashed in twice after their rookie deal was Darrelle Revis. After signing a six-year, $96 million deal with the Buccaneers, he signed a five-year $70 million contract with the Jets (with a one-year, $12 million deal in New England in the middle).
Only one problem: he ended up playing a collective three seasons for those teams. Yep, he never saw a huge portion of those deals. So goes the life of a late-20s, early 30s cornerback.
By heading back to the negotiating table now, Darius Slay is giving himself one last shot at a big extension that he could actually play out in Detroit.
There is certainly a big risk from the Lions’ standpoint. Handing over another big contract to player who has likely peaked is dangerous business dealing for an NFL GM. But an extension now for Detroit makes a lot more sense than potentially waiting another year for Slay to get 365 days closer to that cornerback age drop off. Not to mention, the price is only going to get higher the longer you wait. If you’re Lions general manager Bob Quinn, you’re probably thinking either get a deal done now, or let him hit the market at the end of his current contract.