Lining up against All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson has already been beneficial for cornerback Darius Slay, above, this offseason, and he's excited to continue the matchup in training camp next month. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — Lions second-year cornerback Darius Slay talked on Wednesday about learning from veterans Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston, who were preparing him for a time when they may not be on the team.
That time came sooner than expected for Houston, who was released Friday as the Lions freed salary cap space to sign tight end and first-round pick Eric Ebron.
"Chris took me as his little brother, then him and 'Shean just took me in," said Slay, a second-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2013. "They're just working with me to make sure I try to be the best because their time is going to end (at some point), and I'm the young (one).
"So, I feel like I could be the future of the defense."
And for the Lions and Slay, the future is now.
Houston started the past four seasons after the Lions acquired him in a trade from the Atlanta Falcons in 2010, but his struggles last season and concerns about a toe injury that he had surgically repaired last month led to his release.
Slay will now take Houston's place as the No. 1 cornerback, where he has been working with Houston absent from organized team activities and the mandatory minicamp that concluded Thursday. Slay and Mathis are the likely starters for 2014, and Bill Bentley and rookie Nevin Lawson will battle for time at nickel cornerback. Free-agent Cassius Vaughn also looked good during the offseason practices.
Lining up against All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson has already been beneficial for Slay, and he's excited to continue the matchup in training camp next month.
"He's going to be helping me out even more, and I can't wait to do this," Slay said.
Slay had among the most impressive offseasons for the Lions, based on the portions of practice open to the media, and even had a few pass breakups against Johnson. The 21-year-old posted a picture on Instagram of him defending a pass against Johnson, and Houston commented, "I love it lil bro."
As a rookie, Slay started the season opposite Houston but was benched for Mathis, who signed with the Lions in August, in both of the first two games. He started two games later in the season when Houston was hobbled by injuries.
"I didn't start off how I wanted to, just being a rookie, going through it scared to give up deep balls," Slay said. "But by the end of the year, you see I was just locked in more (and) made a lot more plays that I was supposed to make."
Despite continued struggles at cornerback, the Lions waited until the fourth round to pick one this year — Lawson out of Utah State — because of their confidence in Slay, who said he's ready to handle the pressure.
"It just shows that a lot of people believe in my talent and what I could do and what I can bring to the table. And I'm going to bring it," he said. "That's what I did at Mississippi State. Me and (Johnthan) Banks were both No. 1 guys, so we just played like we were the man. And that's what I plan on doing here."
Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the staff likes Slay's progress in the new defensive scheme and that the cornerback looks more confident.
"Obviously, we all know and realize that he does indeed have skill and ability," Caldwell said. "The guy can run. He can flat run; he can jump. He has all the physical tools that you're looking for. He's just lacking a little bit of experience."