Secret Superstars: Detroit Lions
Last season, the Detroit Lions had one of the best defenses in the NFL. Unfortunately, that defense took a big hit this offseason, when Ndamukong Suh left for “greener” pastures in free agency. But there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the group for the 2015 season.
They signed five-time All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata, to help shore up a defensive interior that lost Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosely. Ngata has continued to stay effective even as he ages. Meanwhile defensive end Ziggy Ansah broke out in his sophomore year, finishing with the second-highest Pass Rushing Productivity among 4-3 defensive ends.
One of the more underrated units in football, the Lions’ secondary boasts some very talented starters. Led by second-team All-Pro safety Glover Quin and the seemingly ageless veteran Rashean Mathis, the Lions have a safety/corner tandem that much of the league would envy. However, it’s their third-year corner, Darius Slay, that is primed for a breakout year. He is our Secret Superstar for the Lions this season.
Slay was selected by the Lions early in the second round of the 2013 draft. Despite only two seasons at the FBS level with Mississippi State, he impressed at the combine by running a 4.36 40-yard dash, the fastest of all cornerbacks. The Lions were in desperate need of a second corner across from Chris Houston, and so Slay was expected to compete for a Day 1 starter job with Mathis. Slay won the job, but was benched in both of his first two games as a starter. Slay lost his starting job after the second game, and was relegated to a sub-package corner role.
In Week 14, Houston was unable to play due to injury, and Slay was thrust back into a starting role, against the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers. Slay had his best game of the season, allowing only three catches on six passes thrown his way and two passes defended. However, the next week he was injured in practice, and only managed to return for the Lions’ Week 17 game. There he was targeted a team-high nine times, but allowed only five receptions.
The Lions released Chris Houston in the 2014 offseason, meaning a starting corner job was once again Slay’s to lose. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin planned to run a more aggressive press-based defense, which he felt would benefit Slay and Mathis. Sure enough, Slay once again earned the top corner spot for the first game. But this time he got off to a much better start to the season. Against the New York Giants in Week 1 he was targeted eight times, but allowed only three receptions for a mere 14 yards and had two pass breakups.
A strong start to the season saw Slay as the fifth-highest graded coverage corner in the league through three games. He struggled a bit in his next two games, allowing 11 of 17 throws to be completed against him for 188 yards, but he did get his first career interception against the Jets in Week 4 off a bad Geno Smith overthrow. Perhaps more importantly, he was allowed to work through his struggles.
Slay bounced back, then continued to play well and rarely missed a snap (a trend that continued for the entire season). A Week 11 game against the Arizona Cardinals, allowing one catch on only two targets, showed his work. The catch was a touchdown, but on the play Slay showed his closing speed and was nearly able to knock the ball out of Michael Floyd’s hands. On the other target, Slay showed off his elite speed as he stayed side by side with Floyd on a go route, never losing a step while tracking the ball in the air so that he could knock it away.
Slay had his highest-graded game of the year in Week 13 against the Chicago Bears (+4.0 overall, +3.9 coverage). He was targeted eight times but allowed only four receptions for 29 yards. He also made a great play on a deep throw to Brandon Marshall that led directly to an interception. Slay ran stride for stride with Marshall, tracked the ball in the air and just missed intercepting it himself. Luckily for the Lions, the ball deflected right to Glover Quin, who was able to come down with the interception. He also showed off his strong tackling skills, twice stuffing Marshall for 1-yard gains on screen passes.
On the year, Slay played 97% of the Lions’ defensive snaps, far more than the 33% he played in his rookie season. His overall grade of +7.2 was 16 among corners this past season. That grade was also the highest among any corner that were thrown at over 100 times. Despite being a speed corner, Slay showed he wasn’t afraid to hit, finishing in the Top 20 in tackles and Run Stop Percentage among corners.
With another offseason to develop in Austin’s defense, there’s no reason to think that Slay won’t pick up right where he left off, if not better. The Lions’ defense lost some strong front seven players, but their secondary should be as good as ever.