Debating which cornerback is the best in the league has become a constant discussion, one the players often fuel themselves.
The league’s cornerback position is filled with elite-level talent and household names; Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Tyrann Mathieu, as well as a new crop of young stars that includes Ronald Darby, Jason Verrert and Marcus Peters. All of whom are fond of telling everyone just how talented they are.
Heading into the offseason, Lions’ cornerback Darius Slay told the Detroit Free Press that he wanted to be considered one of the best and “paid like a top-7 guy”. Detroit responded in kind, handing Slay the fourth largest guarantee of any corner in the league.
Slay, a former second-round pick, has all the attributes you could ask for in an elite talent; explosiveness, length, instincts and speed. But there are two key traits that differentiate him from others.
The first: versatility.
Few players at the cornerback position have the same kind of positional and schematic versatility.
Whether it’s lining up as a boundary corner, on either side of the field, or in the slot, Slay can do it all. That kind of versatility is often overlooked or taken for granted.
Playing on either side of the field is more difficult than it appears; angles change, trajectories are altered, movements need to be different. And depending on whether the cornerback is playing on the boundary or field side, they face different route combinations.
Then there’s playing the slot. A whole different world where a new set of skills are required; lateral quickness, fluidity and the awareness to avoid bodies in the middle of the field.
Through his first three years in the league, Slay has lined up at every spot; often all in the same game. And last year he had the additional responsibility of tracking the opposition’s No. 1 receiver all over the field.
He has played at a high-level at every spot.
As a boundary corner, Slay is tied for the fifth-most passes defended since 2014. In the slot, albeit for just 56 snaps in 2015, he ranked in the bottom-five in completion percentage on balls thrown his way.
That kind of high-level play at multiple spots is rare to find, but what’s even more rare is the kind of schematic versatility he provides the Lions.
Detroit plays a hybrid system. They mix up a lot of zone pressures with a high volume of press-man coverage and “press-and-bail” pattern-matching. Most cornerbacks have a preference; Peterson and Revis are better in man coverage, while Norman plays better in zone and pattern-match schemes.
Unlike most, Slay plays every technique at the highest level. Whether lined up outside or inside, he has shown the ability to play in off-man coverage, jam receivers at the line of scrimmage or make plays in zone coverage.
His length (33-inch arms) is certainly a major advantage. His tentacle-like arms allow him to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage without them being able to get a hand on his pads. That length also helps him cover up for mistakes, giving him the opportunity to make plays at the catch-point that would be out of the reach for other defensive backs.
Below is a good example of his ability in off-man coverage: He’s lined up as a boundary corner on the field side of the play. His alignment (off-man) is intended to disguise whether he is in man or zone coverage. As the ball is snapped he fluidly transitions into a half-turn, tracks the receiver downfield, reads the route, undercuts it, and makes a play on the ball utilizing his length.
Below is an even better example of his fluidity, length and versatility.
Here, he’s covering Jeremy Maclin – one of the league’s best receivers – 1-on-1 in the slot. It’s press-coverage, but he doesn’t get a clean shot on Maclin at the line of scrimmage. Unlike some corners, he doesn’t panic, tracking Maclin down the field, undercutting the route and using his length to make a play and force an incompletion.
While his length and ability to play both man and zone coverage at high level is reminiscent of Sherman, Slay’s positional versatility, at that size, is rare.
That’s not the only thing that’s rare. Slay may be the best tackling boundary corner in the league.
Given the pass-happy nature of the league, this may seem counter-initiative, but tackling from boundary cornerbacks has never been more important.
With more spread elements making their way into the NFL, it’s now become a perimeter league: bubble screens, tunnel screens, jailbreak screens, slot screens, spot passes, outside zone runs, etc. So much of the game is now played outside of the tackle box. That’s placed an emphasis on cornerbacks who can play in space and make plays in the run/screen game.
That doesn’t mean making highlight-reel tackles or forcing fumbles. Just relentlessly and consistently sorting through traffic, shedding blocks, finding the ball carrier and making form tackles.
Last year, per ProFootballFocus, Slay whiffed on just four tackles, and the tape shows why.
Spread concepts are all about isolating 1-on-1 matchups and hoping that an offensive player can make a play in space to force a missed tackle and generate a big play.
Below: The Bears have a 1-on-1 opportunity to attack Slay ,who is playing with soft coverage (lined up 10–12 yards off the line of scrimmage). With Slay isolated on one side of the formation they throw a spot pass to Joshua Bellamy in space. Slay plays it perfectly. Rather than rushing in recklessly, he closes ground, breaks down and makes the tackle in space.
Cornerbacks tackling in space isn’t as sexy as them defending passes down the field. But with the continued rise of spread elements across the league they’re becoming just as crucial to stopping big plays.
After being a liability against the run early in his career by flying in to tackles recklessly, Slay has developed into one of the elite perimeter defenders in the league.
Finding negatives in his game isn’t easy.
Some, like Slay himself, have cited his low number of interceptions. “I feel if I pick the ball moreI’d easily be a top-5 guy” Slay told 247 Sports.
Count me in the camp of folks who believe interceptions are overrated as a measurement of talent. Marcus Peters – an extremely talented young cornerback – led the league with 8 interceptions last year, in large part because he was the most targeted cornerback in the league.
Slay had the same number of picks (2) as Sherman and Peterson last year, yet no one doubts their playmaking credentials.
It’s understandable that interceptions would vault a player into the national spotlight. Norman’s (4) propelled him to stardom. However, they don’t make him a better cornerback than Slay on a per-play basis.
With his combination of athleticism, length, and versatility, as well as his complete skill-set vs. the run and pass, Slay is a near complete package. Yet somehow he remains one of the league’s best kept secrets: a star player, paid like a star, but not talked about like one.