Training Camp Tour: Darius Slay cashes in, looks strong in Lions practice
Unlike Thursday’s stop in Bourbonnais, the PFF training camp tour wasn’t blessed with good enough weather to be outdoors Friday at Allen Park for the Detroit Lions training camp visit. A mid-afternoon thunderstorm forced practice indoors, but we were still treated to a solid afternoon of practice on what turned out to be a very big day for one Lions defensive back.
[More: Be sure to check out analyst Matt Claassen’s 2016 Lions season preview.]
Slay’s big day
Obviously the big news of the day was the Lions re-signing cornerback Darius Slay to a long-term contract extension, but he didn’t let that distract him and prevent him from making a couple of key plays both in one-on-ones and in team drills. Early on he swatted the ball away from wide receiver Golden Tate on an out route, before coming up with another pass breakup during the 11-on-11 portion of practice.
Obviously Slay’s re-signing is huge for the Lions, locking up one of the cornerstones of their defense, and giving the fans some good news after seeing Ndamukong Suh leave for the Miami Dolphins in 2014 and Calvin Johnson retiring this year. More importantly though, it locks up one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last season, particularly in the second half of the year. From Week 8 through the end of the season last year, only Seattle’s Richard Sherman and San Diego’s Jason Verrett graded higher than Slay, and if he can keep that up, he’s going to be among very elite company, and the Lions will have got themselves a fairly good deal even by signing him to a big extension.
Wide receivers impress
Obviously one of the big talking points heading into training camp has been how the Lions will replace the loss of Calvin Johnson. It’s not as simple as finding another receiver to fill his role in the offense, because how do you replace a 6’5 physical freak like Johnson? It’s actually quite refreshing to see that the Lions don’t appear to be trying to force finding a new Calvin Johnson, and have instead opted to try and become a better offense by adding numerous wide receivers. Recently signed Anquan Boldin looked his usual self in practice, going down low to pick up a couple of receptions during drills. The big signing on offense this offseason was Marvin Jones, and he certainly didn’t disappoint Friday. He made a nice sideline grab in team drills, and had another big catch on a touchdown downfield.
It’s so important that this group of receivers come together for the Lions this season, especially with the loss of Johnson. While you can’t really replace a player like that, there is a lot to be optimistic about with this group. Boldin might not be the player he once was, but he is still a dependable option, dropping just four of the 73 catchable passes thrown his way last year. Tate led all wide receivers with 30 missed tackles forced last year, the most we’ve seen from a wide receiver since Brandon Marshall forced 39 in 2007. Adding Jones to that group, especially when you have a player as talented as Theo Riddick as a potential option out of the backfield, forces defenses to have a lot of players to deal with, rather than focusing on Johnson.
Bush starts at safety
The biggest positional battle on the defensive side of the ball is at safety. Glover Quin looks to be locked in at one spot, but it was Rafael Bush who started the day next to him. It’s going to be an interesting battle between Bush, former New England Patriots safety Tavon Wilson and rookie Miles Killebrew, drafted out of Southern Utah.
Wilson played just 83 snaps in New England in 2015, and has played just 820 snaps over the past four seasons, but has yet to finish a season with a negative grade either in coverage or against the run. Bush played even fewer snaps, going down injured after just 21 snaps of the 2015 season. He has been a bit more up and down than Wilson, but has had some bright spots in his time in the league. He finished both 2012 and 2013 with a positive grade in coverage, and if the Lions can get that version of him, they’ll be happy to have him starting in the secondary. Killebrew is the wild card, drafted in the fourth round out of Southern Utah. We don’t have as much info on him coming out of a small school, but he did grade positively both against Utah State and in the Senior Bowl. It’s perhaps too much to expect him to make an impact as a rookie, but he’s definitely someone to watch going forward.
[More: Lions CB Darius Slay joins PFF for Stat Chat to talk about his extension and play a quiz on his 2015 season.]
Other notes from Friday’s practice:
– Rookie wide receiver Jay Lee, an undrafted free agent out of Baylor, made some nice catches in practice. The one he’ll want back, though, was a drop in the end zone after beating the defensive back. Lee averaged 19.2 yards per reception in his final season at Baylor, but did drop four of the 46 catchable passes thrown his way.
– Theo Riddick is a player we think can make a big impact as a receiver again this year, and one play in particular stood out. Linebacker Josh Bynes was asked to cover him in space, and Riddick was simply too agile for him, catching the ball and cutting upfield.
– Another battle in Detroit this year is at long snapper. Don Muhlbach has been in the league for 13 years, but the team drafted Jimmy Landes in the sixth round out of Baylor. Neither made any mistakes in practice, and this is a battle that will likely carry on into preseason.