As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three rookies who might star in 2013.
When was the last time the Detroit Lions had a really good set of cornerbacks? A legit, to-be-feared 1-2 combo at that position, capable of shutting down even the best opposing passing games?
Certainly not in the recent past, as the Lions' pass defense has let the team down time and again. Perhaps you could make a case for Dre Bly and Andre Goodman in 2005 or Bryant Westbrook and Terry Fair in 2000. Realistically, though, you have to dig even deeper -- much deeper -- perhaps as far back as the Dick LeBeau-Lem Barney tandem in the late '60s and early '70s.
And that's the history facing rookie cornerback Darius Slay, the Lions' latest hopeful answer to the question: Can anyone defend a pass here?
Detroit managed to lock up Chris Houston with a five-year deal this offseason, meaning Houston will slot back in as the team's No. 1 corner (though he might be a No. 2 guy on numerous other rosters). So, the Lions believe they could get a lot better against the pass if someone, anyone, would competently fill the complementary role.
Slay might be the guy.
For as much trouble as the Lions have had defensively (they've finished as a top-10 defense just three times in the past three decades), they have not aggressively pursued help for their secondary in the draft. Oft-injured safety Louis Delmas was a second-round pick, but it's actually not since 1998, when Detroit drafted Terry Fair, that this team nabbed a corner as early as it did Slay.
Which means the expectations will be there for the rookie out of Mississippi State. The opportunity will be there, too. Now that Slay has returned to the field after post-draft arthroscopic knee surgery, all that stands between him and a starting job is an underwhelming group of corners that includes 2012 draft picks Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green and ex-Ram/Raider Ronald Bartell.
Slay has a higher upside than anyone there, including Bentley, a player who the Lions thought could jump in and deliver as a rookie last season. He wound up playing just four games, due to injury.
A starter for just one full season in college, Slay mostly played second fiddle to teammate Johnthan Banks, including during the pre-draft process. Slay brought everyone into the know with a blazing sub-4.4 40 time at the combine, which led to even more folks rewinding his college tape.
What they saw there was an aggressive 6-foot-0 corner, who was not afraid to get up in receivers' faces and showed proficiency downfield both in reading quarterbacks and defending passes. Slay picked off five passes last season, one more than Banks, and he used his speed to pitch in on special teams.
There is plenty for the Lions to be excited about here. Now, can Slay turn his impressive 2012 college season and stellar pre-draft work into NFL production?
It certainly won't be easy. The Lions ask a lot of their cornerbacks, which is why Banks' size and aggressiveness could come in handy. Head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham have employed a scheme that has featured the "wide-nine" look up front and asked its linebackers to fill any gaps in the box. That approach often leaves the Lions' back four with lots and lots of room to cover.
Houston has held his own within that setup, despite being asked to play above his head by matching up with opposing teams' No. 1 receivers. There will be more help deep this year, with safety Glover Quin's arrival from Houston as a free agent (the Lions would love to pair Quin and Delmas, but the latter cannot get or remain healthy).
So, just like at Mississippi State, Slay will not be pressed into a starring role. Instead, should he pin down a starting spot, the Lions will ask him to take some chances against second and third receivers. Even that is a tall task for a rookie, let alone one with limited starting experience. It's been a long time coming, however, for the Lions to have a truly reliable pairing at cornerback. By taking Slay at No. 36 overall in April's draft, they made a clear statement that they trust the rookie to help end that drought.