For the past half-decade, Darius Slay was the Detroit Lions' best defensive player on a team in need of stars. He was a shutdown cornerback who embraced the community he lived in perhaps more than any other player in the city.
He became beloved because of his on-field swagger and his willingness to speak his mind.
And now, he’s gone, traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter, for a third- and a fifth-round draft pick.
It's the latest move for a defense in the middle of a transformation, a massive reconstruction bringing changes on every level after a 2019 season in which the team finished No. 31 in yards allowed per game (400.4) and first downs allowed per game (22.8) and last in the league in passing yards allowed (284.4) and interceptions-per-pass attempt (1.1%). The Lions couldn’t pressure the passer and couldn’t create turnovers.
So changes needed to come -- and they have. The Lions completely revamped the interior of their defensive line, adding Nick Williams and Danny Shelton. They released team captain Devon Kennard at linebacker and replaced him with Jamie Collins. Then they did the same thing in the secondary -- agreeing to terms with Desmond Trufant on Wednesday night before trading Slay Thursday.
While it was always coming, it's hard not to notice a pattern. The Lions let one of their best players go. Again.
Slay was a lockdown corner, even if it didn’t always seem that way last season. He was feared and respected by every quarterback in the league. He could handle almost any receiver he faced and gave the franchise a player it could count on almost every week to neutralize a top wideout.
The numbers weren’t as good last season as in prior years, but it wasn’t all Slay’s fault. Playing in a man-to-man scheme and asking a corner to cover for too long without a pass rush is asking for that player to get beat. That started to happen with Slay.
But there was never any question about his ability.
Can Trufant replace that? It’s not clear. He was the No. 1 corner in Atlanta and has many of the same qualities as Slay. It’s another question on a defense the Lions are trying to piece together, as much as possible, through free agency at this point.
Detroit could have five or six new starters coming from this free-agency period at every level of the defense. While the Lions have filled the hole left by Slay, they have more holes to fill and needs to meet. They still have questions at cornerback and on the defensive line.
The changes they’ve made have been Patriots-heavy, too. Shelton, Collins and safety Duron Harmon all have New England ties along with holdovers Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman. It’s clear they, along with Jarrad Davis, are going to be looked at now as the leaders of the defense.
They all have one mentality and one understanding, which is what coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn have been trying to create for the past two seasons. They’ve jettisoned other good players who didn't quite fit like Quandre Diggs and Slay to create this Patriot Way via Detroit.
The divorce was inevitable, going all the way to October, when Detroit traded Diggs to Seattle at the deadline and Slay publicly expressed his displeasure with the move. He said then he was fine being traded and learned that “nobody’s safe” when it comes to the business of the NFL.
In a regime that doesn’t want its players to make waves, that was massive. Detroit held on to him then but made it clear during the offseason he was on the trading block. The Lions weren’t going to meet his contract demands and decided to make a move instead. They openly admitted it. Slay told ESPN he had talked with his wife and children, essentially preparing them for the possibility he’d be playing somewhere else this season.
It's a gamble, moving on from Slay and getting rid of good players to retool a defense. But it’s their plan, and now -- with their collective futures on the line -- they have to hope it works.