Being a cornerback in the NFL is hard. That’s hardly a groundbreaking statement, but it’s arguably the position with the steepest learning curve in the NFL for young players. For Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, he has seen both his play on the field and his role in the locker room grow leading up to his seventh season after experiencing that learning curve first hand.
After the release of longtime safety Glover Quin last month, there was a clear leadership void in the defensive backfield for the Lions. Or so it would seem. In truth, Slay has been preparing for this role since before he even left high school.
Becoming a parent would mark a stark change in responsibility for anyone, regardless of their age. For Slay it was a little different. He was fifteen when his girlfriend gave birth to his first son. So long childhood, hello fatherhood.
Slay, now a doting father of four, has turned into a ballhawking star in his six seasons in Detroit. However, during his steady climb to notoriety amongst NFL cornerbacks, he has never had to be the most influential voice in his position room.
Slogging through a typically rough rookie season 2013, Slay developed a close relationship with veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis, who in his first season with the Lions, was in the twilight of his career. Mathis’ calm nature and steady play certainly had an influence on Slay, who was an impressive athlete coming out of college, yet had a ways to go in terms of learning how to play his position.
When Mathis retired following the 2015 season, the leadership mantle was undoubtedly passed on to Quin, who shared Mathis’ quiet leadership persona, letting his play do the talking. Together, he and Slay formed a solid playmaking duo for the Lions on the backend of the defense for the better part of the last decade. With Quin now gone, Slay’s time as the elder statesman of the secondary has begun.
Slay’s flashy, attention grabbing style doesn’t necessarily resonate with that of a locker room leader, but it has begun to balance with his emerging character. This may have coincided with him, Mathis and Quin joining the team at the same time prior to the 2013 season. Quin and Mathis always led by example with the Lions, and Slay’s play has been much louder than his personality the last three seasons, with 13 total interceptions and 56 passes defensed over that span.
Another critical factor in Slay’s climb to the leadership summit is one that hits closer to home. When the Lions drafted safety Tracy Walker in the third round of the 2018 draft, they were adding one of Slay’s cousins, from the same hometown of Brunswick, GA. The addition of free agent cornerback Justin Coleman this month, also from Brunswick, must feel like a family reunion of sorts for the three “cousins”.
As the oldest of the three, Slay is undoubtedly the most influential voice of the trio, and has set a solid example for his young disciples as well as the rest of the defensive backs. The chemistry should be strong in the Lions’ secondary, and the two younger additions should have a solid foundation on the Lions upon which to to grow and contribute.
At age 28, Slay is in the prime of his career. He has clearly matured into a dependable head of the secondary, largely thanks to the impact of departed veteran teammates and newly arrived kinsmen.
It is often said that at some point in an NFL player’s career, there is a confluence of physical skill and mental mettle. For Darius Slay, it would appear that that time is now, and the Lions’ defense should be better for it in 2019.