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Getty Stephon Gilmore

The biggest splash the Eagles made in the offseason was trading for Darius Slay, arguably the best cornerback in football. He’s the first lock-down corner the franchise has had since Asante Samuel left town.

But Slay has been disrespected by the national media as well as by analytics-driven websites like Pro Football Focus for a “down year” in 2019.

He finished with just two interceptions and graded out at 56.4 in coverage, the second-lowest rating of his career. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Slay was forced to match up against the top receiver on every team he faced last year — guys like Davante Adams, Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs — and held his own.

On Friday, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz shed some light on the player the Eagles gave up a third- and a fifth-round pick to acquire from Detroit. Schwartz compared him favorably to Stephon Gilmore, another lock-down cornerback who he coached as a rookie in Buffalo.

“We’re really excited about having him [Slay]. I had Steph Gilmore early in his career in Buffalo and Steph matched everybody last year with the Patriots and was an All-Pro player and matched everybody,” Schwartz told reporters. “He wasn’t ready for that early in his career when I was with him in Buffalo, but Slay is a guy who is sort of at the same point. He’s done a lot of that in the past and it won’t be anything new for him and we’re really excited to have him and I think it’s going to add a different dimension to our secondary.”

Darius Slay:

➤ 85 forced incompletions since 2014

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— PFF (@PFF) July 9, 2020

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Slay Expected to Match Opponents’ Top Receiver

Maybe Slay’s numbers were down in 2019, or perhaps people weren’t paying attention to his role. The 29-year-old has faced the third-most targets in single coverage over the last two seasons. Single coverage, of course, is the hardest thing for a cornerback to do since he’s literally on an island.

Schwartz cautioned about looking solely at interceptions to judge Slay or any cornerback. Look at their complete body of work, things like passes defensed and how they finish tackles particularly on crucial third-down plays. The Eagles defensive coordinator recalled Samari Rolle — his former standout corner in Tennessee — who didn’t record his first pick until Week 17 when he was coaching him in 2004.

Darius Slay shadows in 2019 pic.twitter.com/hJpzo0NWvo

— Jeff Ratcliffe (@JeffRatcliffe) March 19, 2020

“If they’re not throwing at him, he’s probably not going to make very many interceptions,” Schwartz said. “So I think there are a lot of ways to judge the effectiveness of a corner. Interceptions aren’t always the number one thing. He can do his job by preventing the quarterback from throwing or making the quarterback throwing passes that are incomplete, or allowing you to shore up other parts of your defense because he can play a guy — making tackles, allowing a completion on 3rd and 7 for four yards, or making that strong tackle and the punt team comes on the field.”

Shutdown Cornerback Lining Up at the Nickel Spot

The competition in Eagles training camp for the nickel cornerback spot will ultimately come down to Nickell Robey-Coleman and CreVon LeBlanc, two of the best in the business. But don’t count out a rotation at that spot, including certain circumstances where Slay may need to bounce inside. He wants all his corners cross-trained in every position.

“If Slay lines up at the nickel, the nickel needs to be able to line up at the outside corner, and you need to be able to play man and zone and blitz from that same look,” Schwartz said. “That’s something we’ll get ready for in training camp and we’ll probably just let him pick a guy in the huddle because we really won’t know who the offense has out there.”

Darius Slay's match-and-mirror ability is still up there with the best in the NFL.

Shadowing every team's top receiver in and away from the slot is a tall order, but he was always in his opponent's hip pocket — some of his best reps are on catches allowed. pic.twitter.com/mv3MyJG2AZ

— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) March 19, 2020

That means the gameplan will likely change on a weekly basis, in terms of whether Slay matches up against the opposing team’s top receiver. For the most part, Slay will be expected to shoulder the load.

“We’ll pick a guy and we’ll practice it,” Schwartz said. “And then it’ll just be a game plan decision on a weekly basis, you know, number one if it’s a who and then number two if we’re going to match that week, we’ll sort of play it from there.”

Money didn’t make me, hard times did!!!!!

— Darius Slay (@bigplay24slay) April 17, 2020

Slay himself echoed that statement upon landing in Philadelphia. The Eagles will face a steady diet of elite pass-catchers in 2020, including Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Amari Cooper (twice), A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Davante Adams and DK Metcalf.

“Oh, I love the challenge,” Slay said in May. “I kind of ask for it a lot because of the fact that I want the game on me and I want to help win the game. If the best route to go about it is me traveling with a guy, then I’ll do it.”

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