Allen Park — It appears Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay is looking to reset the market with his upcoming contract, and as long as long as the length and structure of the deal makes sense, there's good reason for the team to consider making him the NFL's highest-paid player at the position.
Slay's contract has been a topic of conversation since last offseason, when he abstained from participating in the voluntary portions of the team's offseason program, as well as mandatory minicamp, in search of a new deal.
Last week, ESPN reported the Lions are continuing to discuss a long-term extension with Slay, but are ready to put him back on the trade market if a deal couldn't be reached. As some speculated about the figures it would take to get it done, including a Sports Illustrated piece suggesting Slay could net upward of $15 million per season, the cornerback tweeted the numbers were too low.
While those figures might seem staggering at first glance, they make more sense than you might think.
That's not to say Slay is the best corner in football, but he's in the top tier. And the thing about being in the top tier at a position, getting paid last typically means getting paid most. It's simple sports economics, based on the league's steadily increasing salary cap.
When Slay signed his current deal, a four-year pact worth more than $48 million, the annual average amounted to nearly 8% of the league's salary cap. With the league's cap projected to be around $200 million in 2020, a new extension for Slay, at the same percentage of the cap, would be closer to $16 million per season.
That would make him the league's highest-paid cornerback, by annual value, easily superseding the $15.1 million scored by Xavien Howard from the Miami Dolphins last May.
The key factor in negotiations between the two sides figures to be age. Slay will turn 30 before his next contract kicks in, and there's a mixed history about the performance of great cornerbacks after that mark.
For example, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis' performance quickly declined starting at 30 and he was out of the league at 32. Josh Norman is a more recent example.
After breaking up 19 passes and allowing a quarterback rating of 74.4 on balls thrown his direction at the age of 29, Norman has broken up no more than nine passes the past three seasons, with quarterback ratings of 114.1, 114.2 and 133.3 during that stretch.
It's worth mentioning that until Howard signed his extension, Norman laid claim to being the league's highest-paid cornerback. For Slay to have a similar decline is the nightmare scenario for the Lions.
But it's not fair to suggest 30 is universally the end of the road for cornerbacks. Richard Sherman just had one of, if not the best season of his career at 31. Brent Grimes continued to be highly productive through age 34. Aqib Talib was outstanding at 31 and well-above average at 32 before injury struck during his age 33 season in 2019.
Slay's best season was in 2017, when he led the league in interceptions and earned first-team All-Pro honors. But he's continued to perform at a high level in the two years since, earning Pro Bowl selections both seasons, all while typically covering the opponent's best receiver each week. That's something only a handful of corners around the league are capable of doing.
More impressively, Slay posted quality numbers when targeted — giving up a completion percentage under 60 percent and a career-low three touchdowns — despite Detroit allowing opposing quarterbacks more time in the pocket, on average, than any defense in the league.
With a better pass rush, Slay's numbers are probably even better. And it's not like teams will be passing less often anytime in the near future.
What does a new deal look like? The key will be its length. It would be tough to justify anything beyond a four-year extension, which would kick in starting in 2021. At $16 million per year, that's $64 million.
As with all football contracts, it becomes about the guarantees. For many of the top cornerback deals, guarantees range between 60-70 percent. The Lions would be looking at guaranteeing Slay more than $40 million in this scenario.
Finally, the structure would certainly involve a team-friendly exit in the final year of the contract if Slay's performance was no longer matching cost after age 33. Basically, another industry standard.
With each large contract a team considers, the negotiations are difficult. Slay continues to deliver at a high level on the field and is a model citizen off of it. If the Lions believe his production is sustainable for a few more years, the price is worth paying.