October 7, 2013 11:24:17 AM
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Darius Slay his rookie season in the NFL would be easy.
Slay has learned the hard way it isn't.
The former Mississippi State cornerback burst onto the scene after the Detroit Lions used the No. 36 pick in the second round of the NFL draft in April. A little more than four months later, Slay was learning as a professional, earning a start in the Lions' season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
Things didn't go so well for Slay. According to Pro Football Focus, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was 4 of 6 for 75 yards while throwing in Slay's direction, including a 47-yard bomb. Slay was pulled from the game shortly after the long pass.
"Not too many rookies can start and the NFL's a tough level," said Slay on Sunday after the Green Bay Packers beat Detroit 22-9 Sunday. "I've been having a lot of fun doing it, so the only thing I can do is continue to get better."
Slay started the Lions' second game against the Arizona Cardinals. However, he was replaced in the lineup again after a blown assignment. Slay didn't play a snap in the third game against the Washington Redskins, but he played in the next two games against the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears. Slay has 11 tackles (10 solo) in his first five careers games.
Playing valuable minutes early as a rookie should pay dividends as Slay gets acclimated to the NFL and takes on top-notch wide receivers every week.
"I think it was huge for (Darius) just to see the speed of the game - just the difference that everybody in this league can run, everybody in this league can catch," said Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis, an 11-year NFL veteran. "He's not just playing against a couple guys a year that maybe can do that in college, so it's the adjustment he has to make, and he knows that. That's why I say his learning curve is growing. He's doing everything he needs to do on and off the field. That's what it takes as a professional, to approach this game like a professional and know it's your job and not just a game."
Lions strong safety Glover Quin believes having Slay start the first two games can be good and bad for a rookie.
"If he was a guy lacking in confidence it could bad because you come in and things happen and you're pulled out. That could mess with your confidence. But Slay doesn't lack any confidence," said Quin, who grew up in McComb, played football at North Pike High School in Summit, and went on to play in 36 games (34 starts) at New Mexico. "He came in, got that good experience, and it lets him know where he needs to be to play and compete at a high level on Sundays."
The first third of the season has been an eye-opening experience for Slay. He knows there is constant pressure on him to perform in the secondary. Slay can go from being a crowd favorite after knocking away a pass on one play to getting booed the next after getting burned for a touchdown.
"You make a play, they expect you to do that," Slay said. "But if you mess up, they don't expect you to do that. You've just got to stay confident in what you do and continue to keep playing."
Slay has been getting plenty of advice and on-field help from the Lions' veteran-laden members of the secondary, including Mathis and Quin, who have helped Slay mature.
Slay also is getting advice from fellow rookie and former MSU teammate Johnthan Banks. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Banks seven picks after Slay in April's draft. Slay and Banks are still close and talk often.
"We stay in a group text as a team, as a unit, because he's like my brother," Slay said. "We went through a hard time together. He's doing good at Tampa Bay, I heard. He told me he got a pick the other week, so I'm happy for him."
Slay and Banks like to share what they've learn in the first handful of games in the NFL.
"We talk about a lot of stuff. You try to get yourself through the rookie year. It's tough," Slay said. "He always wonders why everybody's on him, and I say everybody's on me, too."
To continue improve, Slay knows he needs to work on his technique of defending receivers.
"He has all the tools. He has all the tangibles. Now it's just technique," Mathis said. "As a corner, technique separates you from the average other good corner. If you can work your technique more than naught, then you're going to last a long time in this league. This is my 11th year, and technique is going to keep me (in the NFL) when my ability can't. That's something young guys have to learn."
Slay feels he's making progress since his first NFL snap, even though that was only four weeks ago. He's minimizing mistakes and making a lot more plays because he feels more comfortable on the field.
"He's taking everything in stride and he's learning from it. As a rookie, that's what you want to do," Mathis said. "That means you have a great future ahead of you, and he definitely does. He has a bright future and tremendous upside."