Is Darius Slay the next elite corner in the NFL?

Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

Darius Slay filled a decade long need for the Detroit Lions when he had a breakout sophomore season in 2014. Stability at cornerback. Many players had come and gone, but none had made a lasting impact on the franchise. He has had his highs a lows since then, but he has emerged as one of the better corners in the league, and as a franchise player in the Lions secondary.

Slay was rewarded last offseason for his performance with a huge deal worth almost $50 million over four years. He is a key piece of the Lions long term plans, and they will hope to retain him for as long as possible.

“Big Play Slay”, a self-given nickname from Slay’s twitter, earns his money by not showing up on the box score. He has only intercepted six passes in his four year career, but his presence in man coverage can make a team’s best receiver a non-factor. He has the ability to smother his opponent and stay on them all over the field. Quarterbacks have to think twice before throwing in his direction, and when they dare test him his skills playing the ball usually end up leading to him swatting it away.

The most important play Slay made last season, and may be the most important of his career, came late during the Lions Thanksgiving match up against the Vikings.

Slay is lined up wide against a Vikings receiver. He initially turns his back towards the play to face the sideline, as corners generally do when playing in man coverage. When he turns around, though, he reads Sam Bradford and sees him throwing towards a shallower route. He breaks off his man and undercuts Bradfords pass for an interception to set up a game winning field goal.

His knowledge of the game and ability to read what receivers and quarterbacks are going to do allow him to stick with his man in man coverage, and break off of routes when he needs to. It does not always lead to a flashy game winning interception, but it usually removes an important weapon from the play.

Slay was an issue for the Titans all day during their week two matchup with the Lions.

On this play, Slay is lined up across Harry Douglas. Tennessee has overloaded their slot on the right side of the formation, causing Slay to line up just outside of his man. Douglas runs a shallow crossing route over the middle of the field. Slay follows him, and quarterback Marcus Mariota goes through his progressions. He looks towards Douglas first, who is being smothered by the Lions corner. The play breaks down and Mariota is forced to scramble to his left. Douglas, and Slay, follow the play towards the left sideline. A Lions safety picks up the receiver alongside Slay and Mariota takes a sack as he has nowhere to go with the ball since his primary receiver has been neutralized.

The ability to keep up with a receiver after his initial route is generally overlooked when evaluating a cornerback. When a play breaks down the receivers begin to improvise into less predictable routes. They scramble back and forth along with their quarterback to give them an option as the play extends itself. A defensive back is responsible with keeping up with them, and many of the busts in coverage we see on these plays are due to a defensive back either selling out for the quarterback of just getting entirely lost in the chaos.

Not letting your assignment escape you in a play breakdown is even more important when you face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers twice a year.

On this play during the Lions week 17 game against their division rivals, Slay is lined up across Jordy Nelson. Rodgers initially turns towards his trusted wide receiver on a comeback route, but Slay is in the area so he pulls back. As the pressure reaches him he enters a scramble drill. Nelson tries to loop back around to shake Slay off of him, but he can’t escape his opponent to get free. Rodgers ends up turning the other way and scrambling for a short gain.

Slay is one of the fastest players on the Lions roster and can keep up with nearly anyone. He avoids tangling his feet and catching himself flat footed, and has the ability to read the receiver to keep up with them on their route.

The lions defensive back does a good job keeping his hips facing his man to avoid getting turned around and lost. The sideline is a corners best friend in man coverage and he uses it to his full advantage to limit the room a receiver has to make a play. He blankets them, and does not leave much a window for a quarterback to work with when throwing in his direction.

If a quarterback does test him, Slay knows how to play the ball and more often than not sends it harmlessly into the ground.

He excels at getting around a receiver’s body to make a play without committing a penalty. Timing is key for him. When a ball his thrown his way, he has to be fast enough to close down on his man, strong enough to knock the ball away, and have the timing to make contact at the perfect time to avoid a penalty. Slay has defended 44 passes over the past three seasons, an impressive feat, and they have come against all types of receivers, routes and quarterbacks.

With great coverage skills and elite talent playing passes, Slay has all the makings to become a shutdown corner in the NFL. There are a few issues with his game, though.

As fast as he is, Slay struggles on certain routes. He is a liability when he is forced to line up in the slot, and often gets beaten on flare routes. The corner gets beaten by quick twitches at the line of scrimmage all too often. Smaller, faster, receivers can easily pick up a short five yard gain with Slay across from them, and the problem was exacerbated by the Lions awful linebackers in 2016.

On this play against the Redskins last season, Slay gets absolutely embarrassed by receiver Jamison Crowder.

Slay is lined up off of the line of scrimmage as there is a receiver and corner between him and Crowder. The Redskins receiver slowly jogs for a few steps then quickly turns his body right before breaking to his left. He sends Slay stumbling and gets wide open for a huge gain.

Short flare routes over the middle proved to be Slay’s kryptonite last season. He would often get caught over committing to the outside, and get left in the dust when the receiver quickly changed direction.

He is fast enough to keep up with many of the receivers he is facing on the inside, and has the physical tools necessary to deal with them for the most part. It is most likely a mental issue, and one that he should be working hard on this offseason.

Like many other corners, Slay also gets caught leaving to big of a cushion at times. This leads to receiver’s exploitating the gap he leaves for a quick gain on comeback routes. None of the gaps he leaves open are as obscene as the ones covered in the Kenny Stills breakdown, but it allows a team to quickly and easily move the chains to get a drive rolling. Continuously allowing these shorter gains also force safety’s and linebackers out of there natural position for more support near the shallow sideline, making it easier to beat the Lions deep.

A huge concern in Slays game has to be his inability to chase down a receiver once he is beaten. If he falls for a double move or gets caught flat footed early in a route, he then spends the rest of the route chasing. When chasing from behind he seems to throw away his fundamentals, and instead just focuses on catching up to his man. Receivers that excel at route running easily shake him off once he falls behind them, leaving them open.

Slay did not play for much of the Lions week 15 game against the New York Giants. Odell Beckham Jr. gave him a lot of trouble when he was on the field, though.

On this play, Beckham gets ahead of Slay early. Beckham is a little faster, but Slay stays in range to cover him for majority of the play. The Giants receiver deke’s towards the inside before breaking outside, and Slay falls for it. Slay gets turned around while Beckham runs wide open towards the sideline. Luckily, Eli Manning had already gotten rid of the ball. If he had waited another second, though, he would have had a wide open man on the side line.

Beckham managed to turn around Slay because he sold out on the fake. Once Slay realized he was slightly behind, he did everything he could to catch up. Beckham is one of the best receivers in the league, and Slay seemed unprepared to deal with a player of his caliber. Odell dominated the match up before Slay left with a second quarter injury.

The Giants were not the only team Slay had trouble against, though. Jordy Nelson was his primary foe for both of the Lions match ups against the Packers. As we saw earlier, Slay fared a lot better against his division rival. Nelson did get the better of him a few times, though.

Nelson initially fakes a comeback route, then instead turns up field. Slay covers him well on the first part of his route. The receiver then hesitates before continuing his route, catching Slay flat footed and forcing him to play catch up. After running a few yards up field, Nelson then breaks hard towards the side line. At this point Slay is still in good position. He is still in the passing lane between Rodgers and Nelson, and if the ball comes his way he can make a good play on it. Instead of instantly breaking towards the sideline with Nelson, Slay mimics his route. He runs upfield himself leaving the receiver wide open heading towards the side line.

(At this point neither Slay nor Nelson are aware Rodgers has rolled out of the pocket the other way. They are both turned around the entire play, and Nelson even calls for the ball when he realizes Slay is lost.)

One would expect Slay to instantly turn as Nelson did, limiting the potential window of opportunity. He is generally a good decision maker but he seems to enter panic mode when finds himself slightly behind his man.

Whether it’s at the sideline or on a double move down field, Slay, like all corners occasionally falls behind. He does not recover well, though. Usually he gets away with it, but occasionally it leads to him getting beaten downfield for a huge gain.

The final criticism on Slay is one often overlooked in the secondary. Slay is an awful tackler. He generally just dives towards the ball carriers’ feet while swinging an arm out in an attempt to trip them. This leads to a lot of missed tackles, and often when he does make the tackle he ends up allowing an extra three or four yards on the play. He is accustomed to being able to just throw someone out of bounds or just tripping them from behind, but he is terrible in the open field.

Darius Slay has all the tools needed to one day become an elite corner back. He is not there yet, but the Lions are betting on him. His has good instincts and play making ability, and all the physical tools needed to deal with majority of NFL receivers. He needs to polish up his game to take the next step though.

2017 should be an exciting year for Slay, and for the Lions secondary. He will return healthy after missing time last season with a hamstring injury, and the additions of DJ Hayden and Teez Tabor provide the Lions with desperately needed depth at corner back. Glover Quinn returns as a veteran voice in the Lions defensive backfield, and there are high expectations riding on sophomore safety Miles Killebrew.

With Matthew Stafford entering his prime, the Lions window for playoff success may be wide open this year. They made the playoffs despite injuries all over the roster, but they still have many question marks entering this season. Their defense was obscenely bad last season, and Slay will be one of the key pieces needed to turn that around heading into 2017.

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