Second Round, 36th Pick
Playing opposite 2012 Jim Thorpe Award winner and potential first-round pick Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State’s Darius Slay was overshadowed during his collegiate career as the No. 2 cornerback on his team.
That said, Slay made major strides in his senior season, and with more athleticism and upside, he has the potential to end up being the better NFL cornerback of the duo.
Slay has a very good combination of height and speed for a cornerback, and combined with fluid hips, he proved he can hang with some of the nation’s best wideouts against SEC competition at Mississippi State.
He uses his recovery speed well to catch up with receivers and make plays on the ball, and has very good ball skills. With the ball in his hands, he is a threat to turn an interception into a big play the other way with his speed and open-field running ability. He is also a solid run defender and efficient tackler.
Only a one-year starter for the Bulldogs, Slay remains a raw and inconsistent player.
He needs to get his hands on receivers more consistently in man coverage. In both man and zone, his instincts are subpar, as he tends to look toward the quarterback too often and can sometimes lose a receiver to leave them open.
Slay has the tools to be one of the best cornerbacks from the 2013 NFL draft class.
He has an outstanding combination of size (6’, 192 pounds, 32 1/4” arms) and speed (his 4.36-second 40-yard dash was the fastest at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine). He uses that speed well on the field, as he can quickly accelerate into a second gear for recovery speed, while he moves his hips fluidly and has quick feet.
(All combine results via NFL.com)
Slay needs to develop better coverage instincts, but that is likely to come with experience. Having only started for one season and only played two seasons of major college football, Slay’s game is continuing to improve, but he will likely take time to develop over his first one or two seasons in the NFL.
He did not qualify academically out of high school, which required him to go to the junior college route before enrolling at Mississippi State, according to the Florida Times-Union. He had no noted academic or off-field issues at Mississippi State.
Mississippi State used both man and zone coverage often, giving Slay a good amount of experience in both coverages. He continues to need development in both coverage settings, but has the skill to excel in both.
Playing the Ball
Slay’s ball skills are one of the strongest points of his game. He has the speed to track down bad throws and make plays on the ball, while he is also quick to break on routes and uses his length well to make plays on the ball over receivers.
He has inconsistent hands, but had five interceptions in his senior season nonetheless. Considering his measurables, his ball skills should translate well to the next level even when working against bigger and faster receivers, and he is a threat to turn any interception into a big play with his open-field running ability.
Against the Run
Slay is a solid and willing run defender. He uses his speed well to track down running plays into the backfield or out to the sidelines, and he is a sound, physical tackler. He will be able to help an NFL team against the run from the secondary, and he rarely misses tackles.
He is not necessarily an aggressive run defender, and he has not shown to be an effective blitzer. He also struggles to disengage from blocks in the open field.
Slay’s man coverage ability improved considerably over the course of his senior season. He uses his speed and length well, is good at diagnosing opposing routes and can lock onto even the biggest and fastest of receivers downfield.
He does, however, have a tendency at times to focus on the quarterback rather than his man, which opposing receivers will consistently take advantage of to get open if he lapses at the next level.
His use of hands and press coverage are a work in progress. When he does get his hands on an opposing receiver, he is physical and does a good job of impeding his opponent or disrupting their chance to make a catch. He needs to do this more consistently, however, as he sometimes stays off in coverage allowing receivers to come inside of him and make plays.
Slay’s athleticism, ability to cover ground quickly and ball skills make him a tough player to throw against in zone coverage, but he does need to develop better zone coverage instincts to fix inconsistency. He looks lost at times in zone coverage, allowing receivers to enter his zone and get open to make plays.
Slay is a very solid tackler who rarely misses tackles. He takes efficient angles to the ball-carrier, then does a good job of going low and driving his body into the runner’s lower body to drive them backwards and take them down.
Slay’s technique in both man and zone coverage is still a work in progress.
He needs to pay better attention to opposing receivers’ movements when in coverage, and in man coverage, he needs to use his hands more consistently. He has a decent backpedal and is good at turning to the ball, but he does face-guard opponents more than he should.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
Expecting Slay to be an immediate fix as a starting cornerback may not be a great decision, but he has the potential to develop into a fantastic starter in time. With his experience in both man and zone coverage, he has good upside for any defensive scheme, and he is also an experienced special teams player who can contribute immediately and stand out on both kickoff and punt coverage.
Slay’s all-around skill set and upside should make him a solid Day 2 draft selection, even in a strong class of cornerbacks. He projects as a third-round selection, but considering the potential that comes with his measurables and playmaking ability, he could easily end up rising into Round 2.