ATLANTA – Darius Slay participated in his second straight Pro Bowl last week. The 28-year-old Lions cornerback is among the best in the NFL at his position right now.
But it wasn't always that way for Slay.
A second-round pick in 2013, he struggled as a rookie and at one point was benched in favor of veteran Rashean Mathis. Slay was graded the 94th best cornerback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus as a rookie.
He earned the starting job full time in 2014. While much improved over his rookie year, Slay was still going through some growing pains.
"You know what's crazy? I was actually talking with Packers cornerback Tramon Williams about Darius Slay maybe a week ago," former Packers wide receiver and current NFL Network analyst James Jones said down at the Super Bowl.
"When I first got (to Green Bay) Tramon Williams was in his second year, but was on the practice squad (as a rookie), and we loved going against him. I'm not going to say T (Williams) was sorry, but we loved going against him. T came back that next year and we hated going against him. He flipped the script and was one of the best corners in the game.
"I felt like Darius Slay did that same thing. We played Detroit and we were like, "Yeah, Darius Slay on us.' Then that next year we were like, 'Please don't come on me.' He just turned into that player, man."
Against the Packers in November of 2015, Slay's third season, he spent most of the game covering Jones, Green Bay's leader in receiving yards and touchdowns entering the game. Jones didn't have a catch in the contest and was targeted just twice.
Slay later said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw respect his way following that contest, and that did a lot for his confidence. Rodgers threw more respect Slay's way in a conference call before the first Lions-Packers matchup this year.
"Well, the thing about him that you have to respect as an opposing player is he does – for years has done star coverage where he's playing both sides and playing inside," Rodgers said of Slay.
"Not every top-rated corner does that. And for me, that gives a little bump in the respect category because it's not easy playing right corner, left corner, and in the slot. And he obviously can do it all so he's going to be matched up on obviously somebody they want to take away from us and we'll have to smart when we're throwing his way."
It was after that contest in 2015 that Jones knew Slay had a good future in front of him.
"He just turned into that player," Jones said. "A top five player in this league. A special player and we hated going against him. I'll always say it's a testament to how them dudes work and dedicated themselves to their craft and turned into All Pro and Pro Bowl players. Darius Slay is a special player."