Iron that Sharpened Darius Slay into a Star

John McMullen

When it comes to professional athletes, game recognizes game.

That was evident when the Philadelphia Eagles traded for three-time Pro Bowl-selection Darius Slay and followed that by giving him a big-money extension.

When the news broke, fellow stars like Tyrann Mathieu and Joe Haden took to Twitter to congratulate and laud the man nicknamed “Big Play Slay.” Even Hall of Famer Deion Sanders had some effusive praise for one of the few who can join him in the traveling CB club.

“@_bigplayslay23 is a grown man out there on that island. He matches up with the opposing teams #1 rec and competes each & every play. The boy makes plays & I approve this CORNER! #Truth,” wrote Sanders, perhaps the greatest cover corner of all-time, on Twitter.

According to many outside observers, 2019 wasn’t Slay’s best season but don’t tell that to what is the equivalent of a heavyweight boxer on the outside.

“I think I played freakin’ fantastic,” Slay insisted. “I’m not going to say an excellent level, but it was dang sure good enough to make a pro bowl three-peat three years in row.”

Much of Slay’s swagger was born in the NFC North where the one-time college teammate of Fletcher Cox got to see some of the best receivers in the world twice a year - players like Green Bay’s Devante Adams and both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in Minnesota.

Iron sharpened iron in a different kind of heavyweight fight.

“Both of those guys are very much top five - Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs was a great, great deep threat,” said Slay. “Thielen was just an all-around type of receiver, intermediate routes. He could do it all and I got a taste of all of them.”

At times Slay was tasked with slowing all of them down as well as working against Detroit's own top-tier receivers - Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones - in practice.

“They were all different and I had to work my craft different every time I played them,” said Slay. “I got a lot better going against those guys. I appreciate going against those guys all the time. They came out to compete, We showed so much respect for each other. We were just trying to get better.

“They were great competitors and going against those guys helped me a lot. They were the best receivers in the world.”

Things don’t figure to be quite as difficult in the NFC East where Slay already got a taste of what’s awaiting him next season from his 2019 schedule when the Lions had both Dallas and Washington on their schedule.

Interestingly, it was Redskins rookie Terry McLaurin who got the better of Slay while the more accomplished receiver - Dallas’ Amari Cooper - was shut down.

“The rook kind of surprised me,” said Slay. “Faster than I thought on film. … He's a true competitor. That's what I didn't see or notice about him (on film). But going against him, he competed every play. He's going to give you his all every play.”

Conversely, Cooper was a known commodity and a top-tier route runner, something Slay was used to from his time in the NFC North and his in-depth studying on some of the best.

“Coop was tough," said Slay. "I just got the upper hand because I knew the type of guy he was. I just tried to eliminate the best route he had and Coop had been in the league so I had so much film.

"Shoot, I watched every little route he had since Oakland. I just watched him over and over and over and kinda got a handle on what he liked to do.”

John McMullen covers the Eagles for SI.com. You can listen to John every day at 4 ET on ESPN 97.3 in South Jersey and reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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