O'HARA: Slay shows comfort level in second year

Posted Jun 23, 2014

After a rookie season that had more downs than ups, cornerback Darius Slay showed a striking improvement in workouts and minicamps.

Darius Slay might feel like he’s the No. 1 candidate to be on the Lions’ hot corner this year.

As perilous and daunting as that situation might seem, it’s a sign of Slay’s advancement. He has been the starting cornerback opposite veteran Rashean Mathis throughout the offseason.

After a rookie season that had more downs than ups, Slay showed a striking improvement in workouts and minicamps.

The true test will come in training camp and the regular season, but there were encouraging signs from Slay – perhaps none more than his overall comfort level.

Darius SlayCB Darius Slay (Photo: Gavin Smith)

“I’m way more comfortable,” Slay said. “Just knowing the game – knowing what’s coming up next made it better.”

An example of Slay’s development was evident on a deep sideline route he defended in minicamp. Slay trailed the receiver, running stride for stride, then turned to make a clean breakup. A year ago, Slay might have simply run with the receiver without turning to locate the ball.

“I’m just practicing on leaning and looking for the ball,” Slay said. “You become a receiver at the end. That’s the DB’s specialty – we lean and look.”

Because of the complexities and teamwork required to succeed, the secondary is a tightly knit group. A crack in one spot can cause the whole unit to crumble.

Slay has gotten support from the veterans. That includes Mathis, who is beginning his 12th pro season and second with the Lions. His experience allows Mathis to give a young player invaluable tips on the nuances of playing cornerback.

“Guys take you to the side and work with you,” Slay said, “I had good vets last year and still have some of the same guys. They pulled me aside and worked with me.

”I had ‘Shean talking to me a lot -- making sure I stayed focused. He’s been in that position. Besides the quarterback, cornerback is the second hardest spot out there.”

Quick take on the secondary: There is a rebuild with new full-time starters in two positions.

Mathis and safety Glover Quin are returning full-time starters. James Ihedigbo was signed as a free agent to start at the other safety spot. Slay, hampered by knee problems and inexperience, had four starts as a rookie and moves into the position held by Chris Houston.

Personnel shuffle: Safety Louis Delmas and Houston are long-time starters who’ve been released. Delmas was let go early in the offseason. Houston was cut after minicamp, despite having four years left on the five-year contract he signed last year.

Key additions at cornerback are rookie Nevin Lawson, drafted in the fourth round, and Cassius Vaughn, a free agent signed after two seasons with the Broncos and two with the Colts.

Don Carey, who has experience at safety and cornerback, never made it to free-agency. He played well enough to get a contract extension late last season.

Three-year plan: GM Martin Mayhew said earlier this year that if a cornerback hasn’t made it within three years, odds are against him making it.

Under Mayhew’s three-year time frame, the clock is ticking on three cornerbacks drafted in 2012 – Bill Bentley (third round), Chris Greenwood (fifth) and Jonte Green (sixth).

Bentley has shown the most promise of the three. As a rookie, he played only four games because of a shoulder injury. He has eight starts in two seasons -- at cornerback or at nickel back when the defense began the game with five defensive backs -- and has a knack for avoiding blocks to make tackles for loss despite his lack of size (5-10, 176).

Slay has the size and speed (6 feet, 192 and 4.31 seconds in the 40) to be a quality cornerback. He has benefited from a year of exposure to the pro game. He started the first two games, but his inexperience was evident.

Slay had two more starts, including the game at Minnesota. Although it was a meaningless game, it was his best performance of the year.

“I didn’t start off the way I wanted to,” he said. “At the end of the year I got better at finding the ball and knowing my landmarks, split-wise. I got so much better at splits and what was coming out of those splits.

“Last year I was just playing on pure talent and just trying to guard a guy without knowing where it was coming from. Last year I was scared of the deep ball. I played so safe. That’s why I gave up a lot of stuff in front of me.

“I trust my speed. At the end of the year, I locked in and made a lot more plays.”