To begin, I found every Slay target on the 2019 season. This required watching every defensive snap in 14 Lions games. If you're wondering how much my eyes bled, the answer is, a lot. Here are those targets. I figure you can make your own conclusions, and then I'll give mine. Ready... Go.
Short recap of each game
• Cardinals: Slay covered some guy named Damiere Byrd for most of the day, with no help. Arizona mostly avoided throwing at him. Three targets on the day, one catch allowed for 6 yards, on 3rd and 11. That’s one way to use a player as good in coverage as Slay. You can put him on a lesser receiver with no help, turn him into Mack Hollins for the day, and give added help to the other corners. In overtime, Slay covered Larry Fitzgerald, and did not allow a reception. This was pretty much the only game Slay covered a lesser receiver instead of the best one on the roster.
• Chargers: Slay drew Keenan Allen against the Chargers, and like the previous week, he had no extra help. The idea of an Eagles corner manning up all day against a route running stud like Allen is almost comical. Philip Rivers did not shy away, targeting Slay 13 times, by my count. The Chargers were 6/11 for 83 yards, an INT, and 2 accepted penalties (one holding, one DPI), when targeting him. The telecast was killing Slay during this game, which was a little absurd, given the degree of difficulty covering a player like Allen all day with no help. It was a fun battle, which ended with Slay getting the last laugh when he picked off Rivers in the end zone to seal the game.
• Eagles: Uneventful game for Slay. He only played 42 snaps because he tweaked a hamstring. I would say that he was only targeted twice, and both times the Lions were in zone coverage. In my view, he was responsible for a 40-yard completion to Miles Sanders when he ignored his responsibility on a play, but otherwise didn’t give anything up. When the Lions were in man, with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery both out, he mostly faced Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and surprise, he handled them with ease. Hollins did catch a 10-yard out route on Slay with the help of a pretty obvious offensive pass interference call that the officials didn't miss.
• Packers: Good game. Slay only saw five passes come his way, 3 of which were completed, none of which were for first downs. 3/5 for 12 yards. Davante Adams did not play in this game.
• Vikings: Slay only played 18 snaps in this game, and he gave up two big plays, though in fairness, they were both outstanding catches by Vikings receivers. On a TD to Adam Thielen, Slay peeked into the backfield after the snap, and could see that it was a play action boot to the opposite side of the field. He got lackadaisical, thinking the ball wasn’t coming his way, but when Kirk Cousins’ first two options on the play were blanketed, he went to Thielen, who was racing across from the opposite side of the field. Cousins made a perfect throw, and Thielen made an incredible catch. Tsk tsk to Slay for falling asleep at the wheel. Stefon Diggs also made a great catch for a gain of 27 down the field on Slay. He ran a stop and go that Slay didn't bite on, but they made an unlikely completion despite close coverage. Tip your cap.
• Raiders: Slay didn’t get targeted at all in this game, that I saw. The Raiders just stayed away from him. He did, however, have about a dozen pathetic efforts against the run.
• Bears: A week after the Raiders didn’t target Slay at all, the Bears only targeted him three times, having success down the field twice. He mostly covered Allen Robinson, who made a great concentration catch on a corner route despite close coverage. Again, tip your cap. Slay also committed DPI in this game for 22 yards.
• Cowboys: This game was sort of a microcosm of Slay’s season. He had sticky coverage all day, and Amari Cooper had a couple of great catches. Compare this Slay performance vs. other Eagles cornerback performances against Cooper, and you can see why the Eagles felt the need to trade for him. There were also a few examples of embarrassing tackling efforts.
• Washington: Slay followed Terry McLaurin for most of the day. There were some wins, some losses, and some misfires by Dwayne Haskins. There were some games (like both Vikings games, for example) where Slay's stats look worse on paper than his actual performance on the field. This game was the reverse of that.
• Bears: Slay followed Allen Robinson in man all day, gave up a TD, and grabbed a pick. On the TD, it looked like Slay was playing without outside leverage, and was expecting some rare safety help inside, which wasn’t there. On the pick, he was playing trail technique on Robinson, baiting Mitch Trubisky to throw, and when Mitchy obliged, Slay accelerated in front of Robinson for the pick. This is what he can do against slower receivers. Overall, a nice game.
• Vikings: Slay followed Diggs all day, and broken record alert here, the Vikings made some impressive plays against him. Slay was on the wrong end of a bunch of completed passes, but the results looked worse than his actual play.
• Buccaneers: Slay covered Chris Godwin most of the day, and when Godwin got hurt, he switched to Breshad Perriman. He only saw one target come his way, which was complete for 6 yards to Godwin. (Perriman had a huge day against other Lions corners.) Slay's ability to transition from a physical, tough receiver like Godwin to a burner like Perriman, mid-game, was impressive.
• Broncos: Really nice game from Slay, going up against the bigger 6’4, 216-pound Courtland Sutton. He was only credited with 2 PBU, but he got his hand on the ball 3 times.
• Packers: He followed Adams, and was clearly hurt in this game. He battled for a while, but once Green Bay knew he was hobbled, they attacked, and it got a little ugly for Slay. Aaron Rodgers targeted him on all 4 of his last 4 snaps as a Lion, the last of which was a 28-yard TD to Allen Lazard.
Slay's stats on his targets
As you saw, because Slay often followed the best receiver on the opposing offense, he was tasked with covering receivers who are big, small, fast, strong, and everything in between, and he did so both outside and from the slot.
First let's differentiate between the targets when he was in zone coverage and and the ones when he was in man. Obviously, zone coverage is part of the game, but the corners who separate themselves from the rest of the pack are the guys who can man up and take away a receiver.
Some sites have Slay with as many as 90 or so targets faced on the season. The guess here is that they counted anything near him in zone coverage. Obviously, a lot of that is subjective, but I was not as quick to call some passes in the vicinity of Slay "targets."
What is not nearly as subjective were his targets when in man coverage. How did he fare against each individual receiver when in man coverage? Here are those numbers, sorted by QB rating:
• In 2019, No. 1 receivers abused the Eagles' secondary:
Terry McLaurin, Washington
Julio Jones, Falcons
Marvin Jones, Lions
Devante Adams, Packers
Stefon Diggs, Vikings
Amari Cooper, Cowboys
DaVante Parker, Dolphins
Darius Slayton, Giants
Terry McLaurin, Washington
DK Metcalf, Seahawks
Slay will improve on that awfulness drastically, as long as he can stay healthy, and assuming Jim Schwartz will allow him to shadow the opposing offense's best receiver. (It would be crazy not to.)
• ProFootballFocus had Slay rated 85th of 115 CBs in 2019. Lol. And therein lies the biggest issue with PFF's grades. They often don't provide any real context. It's reminiscent of when the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a free agent in 2014, and PFF's grades said he sucked, but if you actually looked at what the Saints asked him to do, you'd know that he was covering guys like "in-his-prime Larry Fitzgerald" man-to-man in the slot, while a guy like Jairus Byrd was mainly a deep middle safety. Of course Byrd was going to have a higher grade, because he's not being asked to do as much, and is therefore producing fewer negative plays.
Slay is hurt in the same way. He's following the opposing team's best receiver all day, mostly playing man-to-man with no help, while a guy like Richard Sherman, for example, is parked on one side of the field and playing Cover-3 all day on a team whose pass rush produced 48 sacks, while Slay's produced 28 sacks.
• Slay's ball skills are excellent. He almost always looks to locate the football, and either knock it away, or try to pick it off. On plays in which he was not targeted, you can see that he's able to stay in phase while also peeking back into the backfield.
This was unsurprising to see, as he has more pass breakups than any player in the NFL since 2015.
Pass breakups (2015-2019)
• Many fans get frustrated by their perception of Schwartz playing off coverage and giving up easy underneath throws. At times Schwartz has indicated that the corners in those situations should not have been giving up as big of a cushion as they sometimes were. Slay will not give up uncontested pitch-and-catch conversions on, say, 3rd and 7. It seems that Slay's preference is to play tight man coverage. He's not very physical in his approach, but does not offer free releases, and he he comfortable and confident in his recovery speed to play trail technique.
He is one of the best corners in the NFL in mirroring and matching routes, and he doesn't often give up substantial separation.
• Receivers made an abnormal number of outstanding plays with Slay in coverage in 2019. Diggs, Thielen, Adams, Robinson, and Cooper all made highlight reel catches against him, and there's a good bet that he's unlikely to have that sort of bad luck again in 2020.
And now, the (very, very, very) bad: Tackling
There's no way to sugarcoat this. Slay was an embarrassment as a tackler in 2019. He rarely tried to tackle ball-carriers, and when he did, his effort was abysmal. Slay's best friends on running plays were opposing wide receivers, who he would essentially invite to block him so he could avoid getting in on tackles.
On the season, Slay was credited with 8 tackles on running plays. Half of them were guys running out of bounds in Slay's general vicinity, and one was a quarterback slide. On the 2019 season, Slay was credited with 6 missed tackles by pro-football-reference.com, or a missed tackle percentage of 11.5 percent. That's bad, but it doesn't come close to conveying how alarming he is as a tackler. It doesn't count as a missed tackle if you don't try to tackle at all. Here are a few of the more egregious examples of Slay's horrendous effort as a tackler:
Come on, man. Simply put, unless he's picking off passes or completely shutting down opposing No. 1 receivers, that kind of non-effort is not going to fly in Philadelphia, especially after losses.
After Slay's departure from from the Lions, it was made clear that Slay and head coach Matt Patricia did not get along. If Slay's lack of effort against the run was a result of that relationship, that's not good, but it's probably the best the Eagles can hope for.
Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at an early game in 2018 to see if there was a noticeable difference in effort against the run. It was a little better, I suppose, but still unacceptable. To note, he only had 6 tackles on run plays in 2018, 2 fewer than he had in 2019.
Ultimately, Slay was brought to Philadelphia to cover receivers, something Eagles corners have not done well for years. In 2019, including the playoffs, the Eagles allowed 16 pass plays of 40-plus yards, or just a hair under one per game. No team allowed more. Here they are:
In 2019, including the playoffs, the Eagles allowed 16 pass plays of 40+ yards, or just a hair under one/game. No team allowed more. I found all of them, plus some other big plays that were just shy of 40 yards. (Story, and thread): https://t.co/sFoQ3VUdJ0
The addition of Slay will go a long way toward fixing that mess. That's what matters most, and I came away from this exercise impressed with his cover ability, especially given the high degree of difficulty of his assignments. That said, expectations will be higher in Philly than they were in Detroit, and Slay is going to have to at least fake more effort when tackling here than he did there.