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Niyo: Darius Slay's exit leaves plenty of questions about state of Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News

By the end, Darius Slay’s impatience was easy to understand.

For nearly six months now and probably longer than that — the Lions were trying to strike a deal to send their top cornerback to another NFL team that was prepared to pay him the kind of money he felt he deserved. The kind of money Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia clearly didn’t want to dole out for a cornerback headed into his 30s.

Cornerback Darius Slay spent seven seasons in Detroit.

And by late Wednesday, as the Lions were busy making other moves after the official start of free agency, including a short-term deal for ex-Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, Slay had seen and heard enough to know his number was about to be called.

"They need to hurry it up,” he tweeted.

Thursday morning, Slay finally had his freedom, and like with so many of his former teammates that had headed out the door before him — Glover Quin, Quandre Diggs, Golden Tate, Damon Harrison, Graham Glasgow, Devon Kennard, and so on — his departure leaves more questions than answers here in Detroit.

The Lions found a trade partner where we all speculated they might, sending Slay to Philadelphia — defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was the Lions’ head coach who drafted him in 2013 — in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft. But finding support for the move will prove to be even more difficult. Particularly as Slay fired a few parting shots at his now-former head coach, telling WJR radio in a farewell interview. "Shoot, I didn't have that much for respect for Matty P, as a person. It was hard for me to play for him. That's all that was."

Light on return

It's certainly not the premium return Quinn was asking for back at the trade deadline last October. And not what most Lions fans will accept as fair value for the best cornerback this town could claim in a generation, even if it’s about what you should've expected at this point, given the crowded free-agent marketplace and the fact both parties had made it abundantly clear this was a deal that was inevitable.

"This is not an active trying-to-trade situation," Patricia had insisted a few weeks ago, speaking to a small group of us at the NFL scouting combine.

But it was, and it had to be, which is why they were even talking about it publicly. You don't advertise trade talks unless you've reached a point of no return. And to hear Slay talk, they'd reached that point long ago. What Slay described as a "rough" first year "really destroyed" the relationship, he said, and any truce "wasn’t going to last long.”

So if the Lions didn’t exactly get what they wanted out of this, Slay did, I think. In addition to a trade, he got his money, agreeing to a three-year, $50 million extension with the Eagles that’ll make him the highest-paid cornerback in the league in terms of average annual value. It vaults him past Byron Jones, who just came to terms on a five-year, $82.5 million deal after leaving Dallas for Miami.

Slay’s a better player than Jones, so that’s only fair. It’s also fair to say that Lions weren’t interested in paying top dollar for a player exiting his prime years. That’s a reasonable decision, especially for a player that Patricia — at least according to Slay's version Thursday — didn't view as an elite corner. Or a player he could count on as a team leader.

But fair or not, this move is only going to feed a perception that already has taken hold, both among the fans here in Detroit, where Patricia’s 9-22-1 record as a first-time head coach sticks out like a sore thumb, and also among Slay’s peers, as the Lions become a standard-bearer of sorts for the No Fun League.

It’s one thing to carry that flag when you’re Bill Belichick in New England, where the AFC championship game is practically printed on the regular-season schedule. It’s another when you’re cleaning house — again — in a city that’s seen exactly one playoff win in 62 years.

Problems run deep

Patricia has spent the last two years weeding out all the players that he and Quinn didn’t think they could win with, either because of poor scheme fits or more nebulous “culture” clashes. That’s how it almost always goes in the NFL, of course, but the problem in Detroit is two-fold.

For one, this wasn’t billed as a rebuild when Quinn fired Jim Caldwell and brought in Patricia. But now it sure feels like one, doesn’t it? What’s more, everyone knows the Lions’ problems run a lot deeper than, say, postgame jersey swaps. Or light-hearted interviews in the midst of a losing streak.

And the end result is that when fans see players reacting with glee upon their escape from Detroit, it’s hard to know who to believe. Or worse, maybe it isn't.

Slay, for his part, was one of the most well-liked players in the Lions’ locker room, and he went out of his way to endear himself in the community as well. There are countless stories of him randomly showing up at area high school games or graduation parties or staging impromptu summer workouts for area prep players. And while his unfiltered — or immature — comments no doubt irritated coaches and the front office, they certainly were appreciated by those of us in the media. 

On the field, 2019 wasn’t Slay’s best season — certainly not up to the standard he set in his All-Pro effort in 2017. But no man is an island, particularly on an NFL team that lacks a consistent pass rush and finishes with the 31st ranked defense in the league. The fact that Slay routinely was asked to shadow opponents’ top receivers in a man-heavy coverage scheme — Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams and more — speaks to the Eagles’ willingness to make this deal.

For those shrieking about the trade, calm down. This isn’t the same as Houston trading away DeAndre Hopkins for a tackling dummy. But unless and until the Lions start showing some progress on the field, that’s how it’ll be viewed by some.

And it only ratchets up whatever pressure Quinn is feeling heading into this year’s draft. The music’s about to stop on the game of musical chairs for starting quarterbacks in free agency, and it should leave the Lions with a trade partner for the No. 3 overall pick.

That would give the Lions even more draft capital to bolster the defense, starting with an initial pick that seems destined to be Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah right now.

Until then, however, the fans in this town are going to sound a lot like the guy who just got his walking papers. Whatever the Lions' plan is here, they need to hurry it up.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo