Detroit Lions fans have been screaming it for years. Cornerback Darius Slay is one of the most overlooked, underappreciated cornerbacks in the league. Only now is the league finally starting to notice. Slay, despite not being in the top-10 in fan voting, made his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 2018, but analysts and fans still don’t tend to give him the credit he deserves.
Don’t count Pro Football Focus amongst that group, however. PFF recently named their All-Underrated Team, and Slay made it as their cornerback.
“When you’re debating the top 10 cornerbacks, Slay’s name rarely gets mentioned in that breath, even though he should be,” PFF’s Mike Renner said.
Part of the reason Slay is so good is his consistency. In each of the past five years, he’s had at least 13 passes defended, and Renner notes that his PFF grades have been amazingly consistent, too. That’s rare for a cornerback.
“90.5 coverage grade over the past four seasons,” Renner said. “His lowest single season over that span is 77.0, which, to me, is very impressive because we see how fickle the cornerback position can be. Four to five bad reps, four to five big plays over the course of a season can swing the perception of your season so much. For him to be that consistent, having tracked No. 1 receivers over that span—he did it, I think, 10 times this past year, he tracked opposing No. 1 receivers—to do that is very impressive.”
However, some have doubted Slay’s ability as of late. The veteran cornerback turned 28 this year, and there has been criticism of his play in 2018. His PFF grade dropped from 80.6 to 75.0. But PFF’s Austin Gayle believes his drop in performance may have to do with how the Lions used him last season.
“I dove into the numbers a little bit for an article on the site and saw that at outside corner, he earned a top-three coverage grade,” Gayle said. “When he got moved into the slot, it brought him down a little bit. It was that tracking—not necessarily out of position—but when you track a No. 1 receiver in the slot, like a Julio Jones or some of these other receivers that are playing well from the slot nowadays, it makes things difficult. I think Darius Slay, if you can find a way to keep him at outside corner—obviously there’s certain No. 1 receivers you want him to track—but at outside corner, he’s really one of the best in the biz.”
Gayle is probably understating just how big of an effect playing in the slot had on his overall play. From his article last month:
He played 200 snaps split between slot cornerback and box defender, nearly 100 more than any other year of his career – and the results weren’t great.
Slay earned just a 46.0 coverage grade across his 106 coverage snaps away from outside cornerback, allowing receptions on 10-of-18 targets for 125 yards, four first downs and three touchdowns.
The good news for Slay is that the Lions emptied their wallets to make sure Slay didn’t have to play the slot too often anymore. Free agent signing Justin Coleman is a PFF darling, and should lock up the nickel corner spot for instances in which Slay is not following a receiver inside.
That could mean Slay is in for a big rebound year. Maybe then he’ll get some of the attention he deserves.