NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
While Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks was busy slipping out of the first round following a series of disappointing workouts (4.61 in the 40-yard dash, 6.97 in the cone drill, 4.27 in the short shuttle, 34” vertical), his teammate Darius Slay enjoyed a highly successful showing which should earn him a spot in the draft’s second day. Slay measured in at 6’0” and 192 pounds, running the 40-yad dash in 4.36 seconds and turning in times of 6.9 seconds and 4.21 seconds in the cone drill and the short shuttle, respectively. He also topped Banks in the vertical jump (35.5”) and bench press (with 14 reps compared to Banks’ 10.) Read on to find out how Slay may fit into New England.
Slay transferred to Mississippi State from Itawamba Community College prior to the 2011 season. As a junior, he was forced into a reserve role, but nonetheless contributed by making 24 tackles in adding to intercepting one pass and forcing one fumble. During that time period, Slay began work as a gunner on the Bulldogs’ punt coverage unit; he was also a member of Mississippi State’s kick coverage team, both roles he reprised as a senior in 2012.
Slay’s production on special teams, however, was overshadowed by an increased presence on the defensive side of the ball during his senior year. Slay recorded 40 tackles in 2012, adding five interceptions (one for a touchdown) and one blocked kick as a starting cornerback opposite the more highly-touted Banks. Slay’s play ultimately earned him a spot on the All-SEC Second Team as voted on by the conference’s coaches.
The Bulldogs predominantly employed zone coverages last season, providing Slay with extensive opportunities to gain experience in the types of coverage shells that New England’s defensive backs have typically been asked to execute. Zone coverage is often employed in order to provide additional run support (cornerbacks are not required to turn their backs away from the ball as often), and in that regard, Slay was effective. His aggressiveness and tackling could potentially earn him playing time in the slot if necessary.
Slay’s backpedal needs work; he is not one of the most fluid cornerbacks in the class when it comes to backpedaling. However, he possesses the natural tools (impressive speed, above-average fluidity) to potentially develop into a man-coverage cornerback. His athleticism is encouraging, but not being regularly employed in man coverage makes him something of a projection, which could give New England pause considering their late-season emphasis on (and increased success with) more man-coverage looks.
With Aqib Talib appearing increasingly unlikely to return to New England next season, Kyle Arrington set to become a free agent, and Alfonzo Dennard having been recently convicted of assaulting a police officer, that the Patriots need a cornerback or two is undeniable. Belichick’s willingness to regularly invest high picks on defensive backs increases the likelihood of a cornerback selection; the draft’s lack of top-end talent at the position could force the Patriots to procrastinate on the draft’s first day.
For a team which appears to prize intangibles and skills so highly, New England has been surprisingly (perhaps even perilously) dependent on workout numbers when it comes to drafting cornerbacks. That could immediately rule out players such as Banks, Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer, Rutgers’ Logan Ryan, and Connecticut’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson, all of which lacked outstanding top-end speed. Instead, New England may look to the second or third-round for workout warriors who appear to possess the mental faculties Bill Belichick demands.
Should the Patriots opt for this route, a player such as Slay makes sense. He has the SEC pedigree, accolades, special teams experience, and, perhaps most importantly, movement skills which Belichick tends to prize. At this point, it’s possible that Slay could be available when New England picks in the second round, where such a selection would represent a marriage of positional need and draft value. Slay’s contributions on cover units could diminish the need for a player such as Marquice Cole, and his potential is high enough to justify speculation that could eventually start in the NFL.