Darius Slay on Mission to Regain Respect
Remember the days when guys like Cary Williams, Byron Maxwell, Leodis McKelvin, and Jalen Mills were the Eagles' top options at cornerback heading into a season?
It's been a minute.
Darius Slay could be poised to have a season to remember.
Sure, Davante Adams and D.K. Metcalf got the better of him during his first season with the Eagles, but to be quite blunt, who don’t these two stud WRs get the best of more often than not?
They’re elite-caliber receivers for a reason.
Those two performances overshadowed Slay’s body of work in 2020, and now it seems he’s being undervalued by many outside of Philadelphia.
The Eagles haven’t had a cornerback play to the level Slay did last season since Asante Samuel’s final year with the team.
Year after year, the team struggled to identify a top cornerback, and their opponents tormented them with better football players in receivers. Slay has been nothing short of a godsend to the Eagles, given their history with the position over almost a decade.
Slay would be the first to tell you he has to be better than he was in 2020, and that is for sure the case, but context can be lost when discussing an individual’s performance on the football field.
Coming over from Matt Patricia’s burdensome press coverage scheme Slay was in from 2018-2019 to Jim Schwartz leaving his corners on an island while providing receivers with a soft cushion before most snaps were asking too much.
The truth of the matter is, at this point in Slay’s career, he needs support from the backend to produce the caliber of play he’s more than able to. And that was echoed in a piece by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler did ranking the top cornerbacks in the NFL with executives coaches around the league.
“Philly didn’t exactly help him last year,” an AFC scout told Fowler. “They put him on an island and he probably didn’t have enough support.”
“When he’s high-motor, he’s dangerous,” an NFC coach said. “When something goes wrong or if he’s in a funk, he can be a liability.”
Both statements feel accurate when evaluating Slay’s 2020 season. But the insertion of Jonathan Gannon as the defensive coordinator can turn the tide for the 30-year-old defensive back, and his track record paints the picture of exactly how.
When Xavier Rhodes departed from the Minnesota Vikings, he was considered an afterthought as a top cornerback in the NFL - signing with the Indianapolis Colts not only reunited Rhodes with one of his former coaches in Gannon but rejuvenated his career.
Colts’ general manager Chris Ballard was quick to credit Gannon for playing to Rhodes’ strengths and maximizing that signing for Indianapolis.
The question Eagles fans should ask - can Gannon do the same with Slay?
The answer is yes.
With the addition of Rhodes also came a transition to a cover three-zone coverage scheme. Within the coverage was routinely safety support, which aided the linebacker crew in the box, and when the play became clear it was a passing one, the middle of the field was blanketed in coverage.
This provided the outside cornerbacks with the ability to zero in on their assignments rather than focusing on every possibility (a perfect example of Slay being able to do so against the Falcons in the clip below).
So it should come as no surprise hearing Philadelphia is adopting this approach with Anthony Harris lined up in the box 21 out of his 71 total snaps.
Initially, it was thought K’Von Wallace would play that role, but the second-year safety lined up strictly at free safety. At the same time, Marcus Epps started the game at the position before losing him to a concussion, and his availability is uncertain for Week 2 when the San Francisco 49ers come to town.
Harris comes to Philadelphia known as one of the better coverage safeties in the league, and he, too, is reuniting with Gannon.
Without McLeod on the field, it’s yet to be known which safety Gannon will ultimately prefer in the box for the majority of the snaps, but if Harris’ usage there on this past Sunday was any indicator, Slay will become the biggest benefactor of this, and Rhodes’ 2020 season provided the blueprint to prove it.
Sunday was Slay’s first test, and he did more than ace it from an individual standpoint, considering the quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end combination he faced. Pro Football Focus charted Slay with one pass breakup versus the Falcons, but surrendering five receptions for 30 yards the entire game for a passer rating of 62.3 when targeted nine times.
That production will be accepted any day when going up against Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, and Kyle Pitts.
Of course, the defensive line pressure made Slay’s job easier, but he did his job, and that’s something Eagles fans should appreciate the most, given the cornerback play of the past.
Conor Myles covers the Philadelphia Eagles for SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-hosts the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast on Bleav Podcast Network. Reach Conor at ConorMylesSI@gmail.com or Twitter: @ConorMylesSI
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.