*Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. *
NEXT-GEN STATS: Is Darius Slay an elite cornerback?
Prior to receiving a lucrative contract extension from the Detroit Lions last month, Darius Slay asked to be paid like a "top guy" and ranked himself among the top seven corners in the game.
Was I shocked that a young cornerback without Pro Bowl/All-Pro credentials touted himself as a premier player? Not at all. Every NFL cornerback steps onto the field cloaked in confidence and swagger.
But playing like an "elite" corner requires a defender to deliver a series of dominant performances against first-class competition. That's what the great ones have done in our league since Deion Sanders really gave rise to the "shutdown corner" term in the mid-1990s, and the tradition has been carried on by the likes of Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman in recent years. Not to mention Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Josh Norman and Marcus Peters, all top-tier cover men of late.
That's why I couldn't wait to dig into the numbers and tape to see if Slay's play backs up his bodacious claims. To be considered an elite corner in this league, a defender needs to have the core traits (speed, athleticism, ball skills and instincts) and the tools in the toolbox (backpedal, turns and transitions, bump-and-run technique, bail technique) to match up with the dynamic WR1s currently dominating the sport.
When I studied Slay at Mississippi State, I believed the 6-foot, 192-pounder possessed several of the core traits to develop into a top CB1 as a pro. He was long (32 1/4-inch arms), rangy (4.36 40-yard dash) and explosive (35.5-inch vertical jump) with quick feet and swivel hips. Slay wasn't a polished technician coming out of college, but he displayed the raw athleticism and burst that most NFL coaches covet in a top corner.
Since joining the Lions as a second-round pick in 2013, Slay has grown into the team's CB1 role, playing at a high level over the past two seasons. He has the fifth-most passes defensed since 2014 (tied with Josh Norman with 30), flashing a more refined game. Slay is one of the few corners capable of employing nearly every technique on the perimeter in man or zone coverage. He can play nose-to-nose with receivers in bump-and-run coverage or step back and blanket shifty pass catchers using a shadow technique from distance. Most impressively, Slay can line up on either side or in the slot to match up with the opponent's WR1. That might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but few cornerbacks have the skills, instincts and intelligence to align anywhere on the field and execute at a high level. Playing on both sides of the field requires mastery of different footwork and turns/transitions -- that's much more difficult than some realize. In addition, the move into the slot requires outstanding instincts, awareness and agility due to the hybrid role of the position within the box. Slot corners must be able to make plays against the run while also handling the two-way releases from shifty receivers positioned on the inside.
Slay's versatility as a CB1 puts him in the conversation as one of the rising stars at the position. Elite cornerbacks are expected to travel with WR1s, and he showed the football world that he is capable of handling the responsibility during the last couple months of 2015, when he shadowed guys like Jeremy Maclin and Amari Cooper to great effect. He thrived as the Lions' CB1 after Rashean Mathis' midseason injury and flashed enough that I even included him as one of my top-10 corners on a recent NFL NOW video.
Despite those successes, Slay must pick up his raw production to slip past the velvet rope and get into the Elite Cornerback Club. Studying the numbers from 2015, I was surprised to find out that Slay ranked 58th in passer rating allowed with a 90.1. By comparison, Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis posted 45.6 and 47.2 marks, respectively. Now, I don't expect him to match the production of those two superstars, but Slay has to at least mirror the performances of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (53.1), Marcus Peters (55.5), Jason Verrett (58.9), Josh Norman (60.9) and a host of others before he can boast about being an elite or "top-seven" corner.
In addition, Slay must bring down his completion-rate and yards-per-target marks. Last season, opponents completed 63.2 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and averaged a whopping 9.4 yards per target. Revis had the lowest completion percentage allowed (42.2), while Peterson paced the league with a miniscule average of 5.5 yards per target.
To be fair, the 25-year-old Slay is still growing into his role as the Lions' CB1 and should get better with more experience. In fact, the numbers suggest that he might be on track to make a rapid ascension up the charts as he gets more opportunities to travel -- particularly when playing in the slot. In 2015, he only allowed a 54.5 percent completion rate in the slot. Although it's a very small sample size -- Slay only spent 56 snaps in the slot -- it speaks volumes about his ability to cover on the inside.
But make no mistake about this: If Slay really wants to earn elite status in the NFL, he has to come up with more takeaways. The difference makers at the position snag picks or punch the ball out, and he hasn't delivered great results in either area. Slay has just four career interceptions and zero forced fumbles in 45 games. The Lions need him to become a better thief to tip more games in their favor (turnover margin is the biggest deciding factor in NFL games). If he comes up with more game-changing plays and plays a bigger role in the Lions' success, Slay might be able to talk his way into one of the NFL's most exclusive clubs and earn a seat in the VIP section.