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The case for Byron Jones replacing Darius Slay

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Much like some other spots on the roster, Detroit’s found itself in a precarious position at cornerback.

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Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last week, a foundational piece of the Detroit Lions defensive front was released less than one year removed from signing a contract extension. Damon “Snacks” Harrison Sr. was one of the few bright spots of a struggling defense in 2018. A stout and stabilizing force in the run game, Snacks was the perfect player to plug into Matt Patricia’s scheme. One disappointing season later, he’s a free agent and the Lions are once again in search of a replacement.

As they say, the hits keep on coming, and this one is sounding like a similar tune. Detroit might find themselves hard up for help at secondary with the ongoing Darius Slay saga. It’s a situation they could have avoided if Bob Quinn would have taken care of Slay’s contract last offseason—as he did with Snacks—but something is becoming more and more obvious: even with a win-now mandate from ownership, this front office is willing to move on from Slay.

He’s vocal about what he expects in terms of a contract—and he’s right. Slay has been the most important player not named Matthew Stafford on this football team for the past five seasons, and at just 29 years old, he’s still in the prime of his career. But this is a business. Slay understands that, and Quinn certainly does as well, and that’s what may ultimately be the deciding factor in Detroit choosing to move on from the team’s Pro Bowl cornerback prematurely.

How Detroit could lessen the blow of Darius Slay’s departure

It sounds like a move you make in Madden, but not without saving the game first, you know, just in case this kind of chicanery blows up in your face. For Quinn, it’s the kind of move you make in hopes of improving your football team while also saving your job in the process.

Byron Jones is a free agent cornerback the Dallas Cowboys could afford to re-sign with their current cap situation—OverTheCap.com has Dallas with just over $77 million in cap space currently, the fifth-most room in the NFL. After inking Demarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott to rich, long-term contracts within the past year, Dallas is currently faced with more pressing lucrative financial decisions this offseason like re-signing Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. With so much money being tossed around, Jones could be the odd man out in Dallas, making him the top target for any cornerback-needy team.

Should Detroit move on from Slay, the remaining cornerbacks on the Lions roster include: Justin Coleman, Amani Oruwariye, Jamal Agnew, and Michael Jackson. Even if Detroit were to select the often-mocked Jeff Okudah at No. 3 in the upcoming draft, Quinn would be counting heavily on two very risky gambles: one, the development of Oruwariye to be the team’s No. 2 corner and two, Okudah, a rookie, to be the team’s starting cornerback from the jump.

Instead, the Lions could make a play for Byron Jones to be the team’s top corner when free agency begins. Jones, a safety turned cornerback after his first few seasons in Dallas, isn’t the kind of lockdown corner that eliminates a side of the field for opposing offenses, but he does make life difficult for quarterbacks and receivers. Over the past two seasons, Jones has allowed just 50 percent of passes his way to be completed, and his fifteen passes defended help add up to him having the fourth-best incompletion rate by cornerbacks over that span.

While he’s been one of the best pass defenders in the NFL over the past couple of years, he isn’t without some question marks developmentally. He’s totally fit for playing that single coverage on the outside the Lions expect from their corners, but he isn’t a player who forces turnovers. He hasn’t notched an interception since 2017, and over the past two seasons, he has been beaten for big plays, responsible for allowing six touchdown passes when in coverage.

Here’s what Pro Football Focus had to say about Jones when he made their list of The 100 best available NFL free agents in 2020, coming in at number nine:

A move to cornerback rejuvenated Jones’ career in 2018, as he showed that he could play single coverage on the outside at a high level. He finished with the 14th-best coverage grade among corners in 2018 (80.4) before dropping to 21st in 2019 (74.8), but those are extremely valuable numbers as he hits the open market. Many will point to Jones not picking off a pass over the last two years, but his 74.1 coverage grade in single coverage is 11th-best during that time, and he has also shown the ability to match up against tight ends when called upon. Jones brings youth and coverage ability to the open market, making him the top defensive free agent heading into the offseason.

The versatility, the length, the ability to cover on the outside, all of these make for Jones being a prime candidate to fill the Slay-sized hole this defense could be trying to plug, and do so without telegraphing their draft plans.

Jones is 27, going on 28 after this upcoming season gets underway, and Spotrac has his market value right around five years, $70 million—with an annual average of $14 million per season. With Jones being the unquestionable top target available as far as outside cornerbacks go, I’d expect that number to be closer to the $16 million per season Darius Slay is looking to secure when he signs a new contract.

It might seem like a bit of a head-scratcher to deal Slay just to sign a player one year his junior to just as rich of a contract extension, but the relationship between Slay and this regime took a sour turn when the team dealt Quandre Diggs at this past season’s trade deadline.

“Anybody can get traded,” said Slay in regards to Diggs getting shipped to Seattle and the nature of the business that is the NFL. “I personally wouldn’t care, (that’s what) I’m personally feeling. It’s like I said, it’s a business and I wouldn’t even care. It is what it is. Go on about the next day.”

Detroit would be wise to mend fences with Slay and keep one of the top cornerbacks in the game in house, but if they decide it’s time to part ways, the team could do its best to fill the void by adding Byron Jones.