Darius was a five-year veteran, a player who had started 71 games his first five seasons in the league.
McCree was entering his third season in Jacksonville and had started all 16 games for the Jaguars the previous season, recording six interceptions.
“I give huge credit to guys when I came into the league who had six and seven years in and they didn’t show they felt threatened by me, and I was playing the same position as them,” Mathis told detroitlions.com reflecting back on his rookie year.
“Donovin Darius was one of the major guys. Even Marlon McCree. I actually ended up taking Marlon’s job (during his rookie season in 2003), but along the way, he helped me and showed me how to do things right. If I didn’t know a call, he was there to teach me.”
“That’s the role all veterans should take,” he said. “We are competing and we are competitors and we are trying to feed our families, but we are a brotherhood, and for you to treat it any other way is not conducive for the betterment of the league in general.
“So to show young guys how to do it – I was shown the right way – and my job is to say, ‘Okay, well, you can still be competitive but still teach a young guy how to do things the right way.’ Hopefully, when they are in year eight and nine, they teach the rookies how to do it the right way.”
Mathis’ leadership qualities just added to the list of reasons the Lions wanted him back this year.
He signed with Detroit after the second preseason game last year and ended up playing 15 games and making 13 starts, and finished the season with 47 tackles and 15 passes defended.
“He’s a great instructor,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said of Mathis. “You can see what he does with the young guys in terms of providing great leadership. I think it’s tremendous, so we always had a lot of respect for him.”
Slay, who is entering year two after the Lions selected him with their second-round pick in 2013, and Greenwood, who just might be the team’s most athletically gifted cornerback, both came on strong at the end of last year and are expected to take giant leaps under Teryl Austin’s new defense.
Just how good can Slay and Greenwood be?
“The talent is there,” Mathis said. “But the thing about this league is we’re all talented. That’s why we’re here. It’s up to those guys to fine-tune the little things, the little technique things, because when your ability fails you, technique can keep you. That’s something I stay preaching, technique, technique, technique.”
Slay (6-0, 192) and Greenwood (6-1, 193) blend terrific size for the position with sub-4.4 speed. According to Mathis, however, that’s not enough to make a long career in the NFL.
“You can be the most athletic guy in the room but if your technique goes out the window then you can’t always rely on athleticism, because that guy next to you is working his technique along with his athleticism,” he said. “That’s going to put him a notch above you.
"It’s just the little things and it’s different in each player. Whether it’s your backpedal or staying square a little longer, you have to learn your body and and the things that you’re not that good at, critique those things and don’t just rave about things you are great at.”