Lions, Tabor preach patience during rookie season
Allen Park — Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay was thrown directly into the fire as a rookie in 2013 and spectacularly imploded in his professional debut.
On the first defensive snap of his career, he had the unfortunate responsibility of tackling then-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in the second level. It went poorly. Slay whiffed, badly, and Peterson romped 78 yards to the end zone.
Slay also got run over by Peterson on a second touchdown and gave up a 47-yard completion. In the second half, the rookie got the hook in favor of veteran Rashean Mathis.
So when Slay sees Teez Tabor, a second-round pick this year, being brought along slowly, he can appreciate the team’s patient approach.
“As a guy coming into the league, all you want to do is play the game,” Slay said. “I want to play, I don’t want to sit on the sideline. I haven’t sat on the sideline my whole life. I’m guaranteeing he’s seeing it the same way. But coming from me, being in his experience, I told him, ‘Hey, I was in your shoes. They threw me out there. I wasn’t ready.’
“In my mind, I was ready,” Slay said. “I was talented enough, but there’s a lot of tricks to the trade.”
Slay’s playing time was inconsistent the rest of his rookie campaign. He didn’t see a defensive snap two of the first five weeks and played just a handful in a couple of games late in the year. But he’s a unique individual, with a confidence that can’t be rattled. He grew from his experience, sought out experienced coaching in the offseason, and came back a better player.
The Lions also didn’t have the same kind of cornerback depth in 2013, so they were forced to lean on Slay early. Mathis wasn’t even initially in the team’s plans, signing off the street in the middle of training camp.
Tabor, on the other hand, came into a crowded room and understood his situation from the start.
“I mean, I just look at like we have really talented guys,” Tabor said. “Slay, everybody knows Slay. D.J. (Hayden), a former first-round pick. Nevin (Lawson), super athletic. It’s not like I walked into a situation where I was supposed to be starting or playing as much, know what I’m saying?”
Now, after being a healthy scratch the first three games and five of the first eight, the Lions are slowly starting to ease Tabor on to the field, getting him a small taste for the rapidly approaching day when they’ll count on him for a much larger role.
“I think anytime you can get a guy some live action that’s beneficial to him,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He’s done some good things. He’s been practicing well. He’s been doing a lot of good things, so we think it was time for him to try to get some reps, get him some experience moving forward.”
In Monday night’s win over the Packers, Tabor played a season-high 11 snaps. But he wasn’t lined up on the outside, like he did during training camp. The reps largely came in a unique sub-package, where he was positioned as a linebacker in the formation.
Not even Slay has done that.
“He’s a really smart guy, for being that young, to be able to play in the linebacker spots, coming in on dime packages,” Slay said. “That shows how smart he is and how much trust we got in him. That’s a tough job.”
Tabor’s alignment wasn’t new to him. He’d done similar work in high school and college. He said it’s different on the inside. Things move faster, there’s more traffic and you have to have a better understanding of how the entire defense works, as opposed to just knowing how you play off the safety when defending a receiver one-on-one on the perimeter.
That more detailed understanding can be beneficial to his overall development.
“Your vantage point changes depending upon where you’re lined up, and he’s a savvy player,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “There’s really not any place (in the secondary) I think that he would not be comfortable because he has pretty good working knowledge of what we’re doing. He just needs experience, playing, and consistently playing and that kind of thing. And hopefully that continues for him.”
The higher a player is drafted, the more impatient fans can be. Each time Tabor is inactive, there’s already plenty of fans on social media calling it a wasted pick, or more ludicrously, calling him a bust.
But that was always the plan and Tabor is patient. He knows his opportunity will come. Monday was just the beginning.