Detroit Lions star cornerback Darius Slay has elected to sit out of the teams mandatory minicamp this offseason, officially taking the first step of a potential hold out. The 2017 first-team All Pro has two years left on the four year, $48 million dollar extension he signed in 2016. His cap hit of nearly $16 million this season makes him one of the most expensive cornerbacks in the NFL in 2019, but with limited guaranteed money left on his deal, the 28-year-old corner is looking for long term security.
One narrative that surrounded the corner in 2018 was that he was in the midst of a “down year.” Some regression was expected after he led the NFL with eight interceptions and 26 passes defended a year ago.
But did he truly have a down year, or did he prove to be a victim of high expectations?
The corner played 15 games last season. He intercepted three passes and defended 17 others. Slay also scored his first career touchdown late in the year.
Much of the regression that many seem to think Slay had in 2018 was because of his lack of production as a playmaker. That is an unfair criticism, though, as the corner never really was supposed to be a playmaker.
Since his days at Mississippi State he has been a great cover corner with the athleticism to make plays when need be. The corner only had six career interceptions in his first four NFL seasons and never had more than two in a season before 2018. While he was definitely on another level in 2018, some of his interceptions seemed more like luck, and he obviously was not going to stay lucky forever.
In 2019, his playmaking luck seemed to evaporate, but he was no doubt still an elite cover corner.
Slay’s most valuable trait has to be his raw speed. He has track star speed and can keep up with pretty much anyone in the NFL. He spent much of the Week 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys matched up against Tavon Austin, a player overflowing with speed, and Slay rarely let him get a step ahead.
On this play, he keeps up with the speedy receiver on a go route, and even manages to get his head around and break up the play when quarterback Dak Prescott decides to test him anyways.
He has more than just long speed, though. Slay has great closing speed and has the quickness to cover short distances fast. He also has mental quickness. The corner can make quick reads on receivers and react fast when the ball comes out of the quarterback’s hands. This allows him to quickly get the jump on receivers.
On this play against the Cardinals, the pass was definitely shallow enough to be completed beneath the corner’s off coverage. Slay’s quickness and reaction time allowed him to get there in time to break up the play, though.
Slay is also great with his hands at the point of attack. The corner is excellent at accurately stabbing his hands at the ball when the receiver is trying to bring it in and often jars out catches that seem almost certain.
Buffalo Bills receiver Zay Jones managed to get a step on Slay here, and should have had an easy catch. Slay used his strong, accurate hands to jar the ball loose at the last second, though and forced an incompletion.
While his closing speed and great hands make him a great playmaker, he often doesn’t even have to use them because of how great he is at mirroring and covering his opponents. Slay has elite footwork and fluid hips. He is nimble and has great body control. His head and his feet are always on the same page, making it especially hard for receivers to get the better of him on trickier routes.
He also manages to fight through a majority of contact that he faces when covering a receiver and is usually able to power through more physical receivers who try to push off on the top of the route.
He is also a great tackler for a defensive back. Slay wraps up well and sees out the tackle until the end. While the hard hitting, dangerous style of tackling that many defensive backs —like Quandre Diggs, for example —use is flashy, it is often not as effective as Slay’s tackling.
His great tackling and overall impressive instincts help him in run defense as well. Slay is great at helping set the edge to contain run inside. When he sees a chance, he can quickly fly into the backfield and make a tackle to hold the runner for minimal gain.
Slay is set to be one of the highest-paid corners in the NFL in 2019, but at age 28 with no guaranteed money left on his deal, he is looking for long-term security.
While a new contract will cost Detroit a lot, if they will not pay Slay, who are they saving money for?
Not a single player that hit free agency last March was anywhere near the talent that Slay is. Elite corners—which Slay is—rarely ever hit the free agent market, and if Detroit plans to trade for a different elite corner, they would end up having to pay them anyways.
It is hard to find a long-term starting corner that can instantly start in the draft. Teez Tabor, Detroit’s 2017 second-round pick, still has not been the guy the Lions thought he was going to be when they selected him out of Florida.
Not giving Slay a new deal means that they will need to find a replacement for Slay. That is a tough task for a team whose second best corner over the past five years was Nevin Lawson—a player the Lions are still looking to adequately replace.
Giving a 28-year-old player a huge new contract is a risk. Giving a player who still has two years left on his deal an extension is a risk.
But when you are one of the least successful franchises in NFL—and maybe North American sports history—you are eventually going to have to take risks to lose that title.