Lions cornerback Darius Slay breaks up a touchdown reception by Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey in the tjhird quarter of their game last month in Detroit. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — Browns cornerback Joe Haden had a phenomenal rookie season in 2010, playing 16 games and starting seven with six interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and 64 tackles.
But Haden’s transition to the NFL didn’t surprise Lions rookie cornerback Darius Slay, who was his fan as soon as he started playing for Florida.
Slay, a native of southeast Georgia, grew up a Gators fan, and Haden, who started 12 games as a true freshman, and wide receiver Percy Harvin, now with the Seahawks, were his favorite players.
Slay didn’t have a chance to meet Haden after the Lions played the Browns in an exhibition game in August, but after sending messages back and forth Monday on Twitter, the two plan to exchange jerseys after Sunday’s game.
“We was chatting up a little bit, and (Haden is) like, ‘Do you want my jersey?’ ” Slay said.
“I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
“He said, ‘Man, let me get yours after the game, too.’
“I said, ‘All right, we could do that.’ ”
Jersey exchanges are more common in soccer, but NFL players do it, too. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson swapped with Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson after the teams faced off in Week 2.
But fellow Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis said Slay wasn’t certain he’d be able to go through with the exchange.
“He asked me about it actually and I was like, ‘Yeah, if the team allows it, go ahead and do it,’ ” Mathis said. “Each locker room is different. I was with a team (Jacksonville) that didn’t really care for that, but it’s good that the locker rooms allow guys to do it. Maybe it’ll cost you $100 to replace the jersey, but the memories last more than that.”
Slay followed Haden closely enough that he remembers Haden switching from No. 12 to No. 5 after his freshman year. When Slay was at Mississippi State, he considered wearing No. 5, but instead chose No. 9, his favorite number.
Slay also wears a sleeve on his left arm as Haden has and said Haden’s consistent confidence — “what my generation calls swag” — made him stand out.
“He made it known that he was Joe Haden because of how he sells himself, how he carries himself a whole different way than everybody,” Slay said. “So that’s what I try to do on the field. I’m trying to let everybody know that, ‘Hey, that’s Darius Slay out there, not nobody else.’ ”
Slay, a second-round pick, hasn’t started his career quite how Haden, the seventh overall pick in 2010, did. Although Slay started the first two games of the season, he was benched in both games, and Mathis has started the past three.
Haden, meanwhile, has started his fourth NFL season strong by locking down opposing teams’ top receiver during the Browns’ 3-2 start.
“Honestly, just tunnel vision,” Haden said when asked what advice he’d give Slay. “There’s going to be a lot of bumps along the way and especially playing at our position, the cornerback position, where you could be exposed just going against top notch receivers each week.
“As a defensive back you have to have a very short memory, so I’d just tell him don’t worry about it, keep going out there, keep grinding every day to try to get yourself better.”
And while Slay models his game after Haden’s, he said he’s focused on his own career and how he can improve in practice to earn another opportunity.
“I ain’t trying to follow in nobody’s footsteps because everybody ain’t the same,” Slay said. “What I’m trying to do is be the best I can be. I’m just going to continue to compete and get better.”