The Detroit Lions – as well as the rest of the NFL – will open training camp in only a matter of weeks.
In the NFL, training camp is the grueling precursor to the regular season. It is the venue where a team’s 53-man roster is forged as jobs are earned and lost.
The fierce competition forces each player to operate at their highest level, making camp ideal for up-and-comers to establish themselves as legitimate NFL fixtures.
Every year there are players who are able to translate a strong camp into a roster spot, regular season playing time or even a starting position.
Last year Joique Bell’s outstanding camp saw him leap frog Mikel Leshoure on the depth chart. Patrick Edwards also benefited from a strong showing in camp, going from undrafted free agent in 2012 to a member of the 53-man roster in 2013 – although, his roster spot was short lived.
Leading up to camp, we will profile the top breakout candidates to keep an eye on.
The Lions invested an early second-round pick in Slay in 2013 and he struggled as a rookie.
Slay has the physical tools. He’s big for a corner (6-foot, 192 pounds), he’s also got great speed and athleticism to go with his size. That wasn’t the issue in 2013. His biggest problem was transitioning from a heavy man-coverage scheme in Mississippi State to a Lions defense that featured much more zone coverage.
Heading into the 2014 season, Slay has a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme – one that is expected to be flush with man-coverage looks.
This bodes well for the second-year player, who has already flashed substantial signs of improvement in OTAs and minicamp. Also, consider that the Lions invested very little in the cornerback position in the offseason as well as cut former top corner Chris Houston.
The stars seem to be aligning for Slay, who appears primed to capitalize on an offseason of preparation, including working with Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.
What’s on the line?
Slay should have the inside track on a starting position within the secondary but he will have to earn it. If he plays to his potential there is no other cornerback on the team capable of overtaking him. Of course, if he struggles, veterans Rashean Mathis and Cassius Vaughn could be looked at as starting options. Also, if Slay struggles in camp, the Lions may look to bring in an additional corner from outside the organization.
“Obviously, we all know and realize that (Slay) does indeed have skill and ability. The guy can run. He can flat run, he can jump. He’s got all the physical tools that you’re looking for,” said head coach Jim Caldwell during mandatory minicamp. “He’s just lacking a little bit of experience. He got a lot of experience out there, obviously, working through our practice sessions that we’ve had thus far. It’s been a couple months now we’ve been working and he’s grown. He’s gotten a little bit better. He’s coming along. He’s more confident. It’s a new scheme, but he’s making good progress. We feel good about where he’s heading.”