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“Buyer Beware” of Darius Slay

Trading for Darius Slay is an exciting proposition, but is it the right decision?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

feMuch has been made about the availability of Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay in the past couple of weeks, after Adam Schefter’s report that Detroit has been in contact with teams exploring a trade for the seven-year veteran.

Fans and reporters for many teams have partaken in the eye emoji-posting speculation of whether or not their respective front offices would consider trading for Slay, and Saints fans are no exception.

On the surface, trading for a player with a track record like Slay, at a premium position, seems like a sexy proposition.

The former All-Pro corner is just two years removed from leading the league in interceptions, and has allowed under 60 percent of passes targeted his direction to be completed in all but two of his seasons in the league. He’s been a consistently good player for most of his career.

Yet after digging deep into his performance in the 2019 season, I found that he may not be quite as much of a slam dunk as it appears. Slay sneakily had the worst season he’s had since his rookie year, if you look at the numbers and dive into his tape.

Slay allowed 14.1 yards per reception when targeted and only recorded eight pass break-ups, which are both worsts for him since his rookie year in 2013. The 689 receiving yards he allowed is the third-highest number of his career, and was on more than 100 fewer coverage snaps than the two seasons where he allowed more yardage.

His 56.9 PFF coverage grade is the worst grade he’s recorded since his rookie year, and ranked 94th among qualifying corners in 2019. He also recorded seven penalties, which is the second-highest mark of his career.

This isn’t to say he’s a bad player, but just that he had a bad year. And for a guy who will turn 30 next year, while also warranting a top-flight contract, it’s concerning.

One particular aspect of his down year that caught my eye was his poor performance when in press coverage.

Slay lined up in press coverage more than any Saints corner in 2019, and wasn’t exactly effective in doing so.

PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote in a recent article (LINK) that Slay allowed 346 yards on 162 press coverage snaps in 2019. For comparison, he allowed only 177 yards on 214 off-man coverage snaps.

The Lions defensive scheme consisted of a heavy dose of single-high safety coverages, which required Slay to be left on an island to the boundary quite often. Detroit led the league in Cover 1 rate in 2019.

This left Slay susceptible on Go routes toward the boundary. Notice how easily he’s allowing the receiver to stack him before making the grab in the graphic above.

To be fair, these two clips are of him matched up with top-flight receivers, but the point still remains that a corner of his status and price shouldn’t be regularly allowing chunk plays like this.

As he gets older, we may see that he requires a bit more safety help going forward. The Saints have, in fact, run more two-high coverage than most teams since defensive coordinator Dennis Allen took over, which could bode well for Slay if he ends up in black and gold.

New Orleans has ranked in the top 10 in Cover 2 rate for the last three seasons.

However, you don’t trade assets for an expensive corner who needs safety help to be most effective, especially when you consider that it’s not guaranteed the Saints have the same safety tandem they’ve had for the past three years with Vonn Bell’s free agency looming.

The argument for splurging on Slay would be that the Saints are in the definition of what you’d call “win-now” mode. Slay could bring a veteran presence and a level of productivity that could supersede the Eli Apple’s of the world, assuming 2019 was an aberration of a performance for him.

The Saints could hypothetically trade for Slay without immediately extending him, and see if they still want to pay him after the 2020 season. But this would require them to trade considerable assets to the Lions for potentially one year of production.

If they decide to trade for him with the intention of re-signing him in 2021, it’ll make two high-priced corners that need re-signing next off-season.

Slay will cost a little over $12 million for the final year of his contract in 2020, and is projected to make just under $15 million annually in 2021, according to Spotrac. They have his projected 2021 total contract at four years, $59.7 million.

Marshon Lattimore’s projected market value is five years, at just over $50 million, via Spotrac. Although, I will say this seems a bit low, and if he has a good 2020 season that number will likely be topped.

Could Slay be the missing piece to the Saints 2020 Super Bowl run? Yes.

His career body of work would make you assume he’s due for a bounce-back year in 2020, and he plays a high-priority position that is a need for New Orleans.

Is it a safe bet to assume trading important draft capital and/or young assets for Slay would be worth it for the Saints in the long run? No.

His age, price and sudden decline in production towards the latter of his prime gives me a bit of cause to pause.

Saints fans shouldn’t be upset if Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton do end up making a move for Slay, as I think Dennis Allen could put him in position to succeed by utilizing his ball skills in off-coverage, giving his defense another piece to build around.

However, the end-result of a Slay trade being a success is far from a sure thing, so buyer beware.