Philadelphia Eagles fans rejoice! The organization finally has obtained a top-flight cornerback for the first time in what seems to be a very long time coming.
Now, if you’ve been living under a rock, then you missed the Eagles acquiring Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions for the team’s 2020 third-round and fifth-round picks.
The Eagles also agreed to make Slay the highest-paid cornerback in the extension the two decided upon after the trade.
The early celebratory reactions towards the trade are deserving. Slay has been a shutdown cornerback in this league, and the Eagles fill a massive hole in their secondary filling the No.1 cornerback void.
Philadelphia zeroed in on acquiring Slay through trade when ex-Dallas Cowboys cornerback, Byron Jones, spurned the team in free agency and landed with the Miami Dolphins. Jones desired to leave the NFC East reportedly with this free-agent decision, but Howie Roseman wasted no time pivoting to plan B, who many would argue was better than plan A.
The narrative swirling since bringing Slay aboard — was his down season in 2019 due to regression or something else?
Slay missed two games last season, but was dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that saw him under the blue tent more than he would like in 2019. A cornerback playing on a bum hamstring is never a recipe for success, especially given the assignments the three-time Pro Bowler faced in the NFC North.
Slay may have had a down season for his standards, but the defensive back was dominant in off-coverage last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Slay was on the field for 214 off-man coverage snaps in 2019 and only surrendered 177 receiving yards. Press coverage, however, is where Slay stumbled. The cornerback saw 162 snaps in press coverage while allowing 346 receiving yards.
The Lions’ defense in 2019 was downright dreadful to say at the very least. The pass defense was the worst in the NFL, allowing 284.4 yards per game while also having barely any pass-rush production with 28 sacks (second-lowest in the league). Detroit’s defensive shortcomings play a factor in Slay’s down season.
Jim Schwartz is better suited than Matt Patricia to utilize Slay to his full abilities. Schwartz was apart of the head coach of the Lions when the team selected Slay in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The Eagles defensive coordinator knows what he’s getting in his new defensive back, but his coverage philosophies are what Slay needs.
Through 17 weeks, the Eagles played zone coverage 58% of their defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. The high-volume of zone coverage usage resulted in the ever-changing lineup of cornerbacks for the Eagles to allow the fifth-lowest completion percentage (59.4%). Philadelphia’s defensive back unit also forced the most incompletions (58) in the NFL. Slay has the most forced incompletions in the NFL with 85 since 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.
Over the last three seasons under Schwartz’s lead, the Eagles do rank in the middle of the pack in man and zone concepts. That mix of coverages bodes well for Slay’s bounce-back season. As explained above, Slay performed better in zone coverage in 2019; however, that lingering hamstring injury suffered in week three was persistent all season long and would hinder any cornerback’s production in press coverage.
No team plays more pure man coverage than Detroit under Patricia, which forced Slay to face the third-most targets in single coverage the past two seasons with 134. The lack of pass-rush, as noted earlier in the article, for the Lions put Slay at a considerable disadvantage in man-to-man situations, especially with a bad hamstring.
Slay’s age is under the microscope even though the cornerback just turned 29 in January. Extending a veteran cornerback coming off a down season while suffering through a hamstring injury may not exactly scream success. Still, there was a specific moment this past season that showed early in 2019 how much Slay has left to offer.
During week one of the 2019 season, Slay played an NFL-high 58 coverage snaps in the season-opening tie against Arizona. The Pro Bowl cornerback allowed one reception for six yards that came on a third-and-16. Cardinals quarterback, Kyler Murray, avoided Slay’s side of the field, only targeting him four times with a quarterback rating of 39.6 on 59 dropbacks.
Yes, that was the NFL’s opening weekend, but as previously stated, the lingering hamstring injury Slay occurred since week three can not be understated.
Given Philadelphia’s mixes of coverages, instead of being regulated to one specific concept, a clean bill of health, and a defensive coach that has an understanding of the player, Slay is poised to have a bounce-back season.
The Eagles desperately need more production from their cornerback group, and the team should fully expect to get that from their recent acquisition in Slay.
Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports