Adam Schefter reported the Detroit Lions have been in talks with multiple teams about potentially trading Pro Bowl cornerback, Darius Slay. With a young secondary on the rise, is it possible the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the teams in conversation with the Lions, and is it reasonable for the two teams to broker a deal? Let’s examine.
First, let’s understand Slay as a player. As a former teammate of former Buccaneers cornerback Johnthan Banks, Slay was taken eight spots ahead of his fellow Mississippi State Bulldogs defender. Not bad for a guy projected to get selected in the middle round before the NFL Scouting Combine that year, but likely not good enough for the cornerback who worked his way through junior college to land with Mississippi State in the first place.
Since then, Slay has played in all but nine games for the Detroit Lions and has given them more than 100 passes defended and 19 interceptions. His best year came 2017 when he broke up 26 passes and picked off eight of them.
Because of his efforts, Slay has made the last three Pro Bowls, and was a First-Team All-Pro in 2017. Unfortunately, his efforts have not helped get the Lions any post-season success. Through seven seasons, he and his teammates have made the playoffs twice, and were eliminated in their first game in each of those trips.
Is that his fault? I would venture to say he’s not alone in the blame for the Lions failing to produce successful team’s in his nine years in the NFL. But some would argue he also doesn’t deserve top money being part of a defense which has not carried their team to mid-January football over the past decade or so of play. And therein lies the problem which has led us to today, a time when one of the best defenders in the league is being shopped for parts.
Slay wants to get paid, and he’s made no secret of it.
Lions have spoken with multiple teams about a potential trade for Pro Bowl CB Darius Slay, per sources. Any team that trades for Slay would have to compensate Detroit and Slay with a new deal. Other teams believe Slay will be traded this off-season, but Lions adamant on value.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 17, 2020
Former Lions All-Pro receiver Herman Moore recently contributed his thoughts to Slay’s pursuit of being compensated for being among the best. And I have to say, I agree with what he has to say - or write.
My thoughts re: @nfl players going after big contracts -@_bigplayslay23 has the OPPORTUNITY to set himself up for what he chooses to do after football.— Herman Moore (@HMAN84) February 18, 2020
From a business and family standpoint, he has a RESPONSIBILITY to look for the best deal he can get.
Period.#nfl #team84 pic.twitter.com/CZG4uf8UbU
Thoughts on the morality of paying NFL players aside, the big question here is whether or not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among those discussing the possibility of trading for Slay. Of course, we can’t answer that question. Nobody is releasing specifics of which teams are talking, what they’re offering, or what they’re willing to pay Slay in a new contract.
What we can answer is whether or not the two sides could work out. Scheme and money. Let’s talk about that.
Detroit’s defense didn’t get a lot of love in 2019 after surrendering the second most yards per game (400.4) to opponents, and finishing as one of just nine teams to surrender 400 or more points during the regular season. Was it a problem of scheme or execution? Well, if you ask head coach Matt Patricia, it wasn’t the scheme.
At least that’s what he said in late October of 2019 according to an article in the Detroit Free Press.
“It’s not really a scheme thing,” Patricia said. “We can play any scheme we want. I’ve coached more defense probably than anybody in the league as far as scheme is concerned. We’ve got to start somewhere and you start with your foundation and your foundations has to be good fundamentals. And if you don't have that, or you’re not consistent with it, then it becomes really hard to fix everything else.”
It certainly feels like the head coach was putting the onus back on the players, but it’s not necessarily something his All-Pro cornerback doesn’t agree with. In another Detroit Free Press article, Slay was asked about coach Patricia staying with the franchise.
“...some of us that have been here with Patricia going on two years, gonna be three, so we’ve got a better understanding of him as a coach and what he wants as in his programs,” Slay said. “We out there. All they do is tell us to play. Obviously it’s mostly on us.”
Patricia has resisted labeling his defense as either a 4-3 or 3-4, similar to the way Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has. But, let’s just say the Lions play in three-man fronts more often than they do four. And like Bowles, Patricia likes to get creative with his looks. Obviously, Slay has thrived in that environment, so there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t thrive in Bowles’ style as well.
So the easy part is out of the way. Yes, Slay could survive and thrive in an aggressive defense which uses multiple looks and various designs to try and leverage strengths while confusing their opponent. Good. Now, let’s talk about money.
Slay is currently set up to make over $13M in 2020, but as many have alluded to, any trade would come with a new contract. It makes sense, not only for Slay who is looking to secure his and his families future, but also for the Bucs who wouldn’t want to send draft capital to the Lions in exchange for a one-year rental.
So, this brings up the question of what Slay would need to be paid for it to all work out. According to spotrac.com, the market value for the 29-year old comes in at just under $15M per year on average. This comes from comparing Slay’s production to guys like Josh Norman (5 years, $75M), Trumaine Johnson (5 years, $72.5M) and Xavier Rhodes (5 years, $70.1M) when they signed their long-term deals.
Of course, Norman has just been released from the final year of his deal leaving $3M in dead money for the Washington Redskins. Rhodes is entering the fourth-year of his deal in 2020 and carries just over $6M in dead money if the Vikings were to do the same with his deal.
I point these out of course, because both men are used to justify the value, and have trailed off in terms of play towards the end of the deal. With a similar contract structure, the Buccaneers would have a potential out if Slay were to follow the same pattern.
The Bucs can afford $14.9M average annually, so that isn’t the concern, although some might get concerned about how the team uses the rest of the money left over after dedicating such a big chunk to one player. But is $14.9M enough to get Slay to sign?
I’m thinking no. Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard has the highest average salary in the NFL among cornerbacks right now, earning an average of $15.05M per year on his current deal which runs through the 2024 season. From Slay’s perspective, if Tampa Bay is going to shell out $14.9M per year, what’s another 200k to make him the highest paid corner in the league?
Because of this, my gut says the deal that gets this done for Slay, comes in at 5 years, $77.5M. How that’s structured, I’ll leave to Jason Licht and company. Paying Slay that amount would move the secondary from the fourth highest invested position group in Tampa Bay ($11.3M in 2020) to the second, right above the wide receiver group ($23.7) and just below the offensive line ($38.9M).
Outside of the financial compensation, there’s the draft compensation Tampa Bay would have to send to Detroit for the right to sign Slay in the first place. I can’t imagine the Lions are targeting anything less than a first-round pick in the deal, but that price could come down as we get closer to the draft.
Obviously, the Bucs will have draft picks to bargain with if they choose to do so, the question will boil down to how much they’re willing to give away, and whether or not the Lions are willing to accept that amount.
Either way, if Slay isn’t going to play in 2020 without a new deal - something he’s been asked about and has yet to give a definitive answer on - then the Lions are in a hard spot. Either pay him, trade him, or go without him for the first part of the season potentially.
However, if rumors are true, and the Lions are looking to move their Pro Bowl caliber cornerback then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers make as much sense as any team. As impressive as the young Bucs secondary performed down the stretch in 2019, an infusion of veteran talent could go a long way to taking the unit from solid, to one of the best in the league.
Bruce Arians has said the team’s main focus is on maintaining and improving on the defense. Outside of someone like Slay, I can’t think of a draft pick or free-agent who could immediately upgrade the secondary group the second he steps on campus at the AdventHealth Training Center.
So, if we’re asking whether or not Slay and the Bucs make sense, then I say they do.