ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It has been his lament for two years now, two seasons of stressing the same thing for cornerback Darius Slay. He emerged as one of the better young corners in the NFL last season. He knows he has a shot to make an even bigger jump this season.
One thing is missing, the thing that bothers him most of all: interceptions.
In his first three seasons, he has picked off four passes -- two last season and two in 2014. That’s it. And he knows that’s what separates him from being mentioned with the likes of Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Josh Norman among the best corners in the NFL.
“I’ve got to have interceptions,” Slay said. “I gots to have ’em. I’ll be knocking the ball down, do all that. When it’s time to make the big plays, turn the ball over, I need to be a turnover machine. That’s what Richard Sherman is. That’s what Pat P is.
“That’s what all the best ones do; they just turn the ball over.”
To help this, Slay has enrolled in what he has dubbed “hand school.” To be clear, hand school is not a real school. There are no classes. There is no true instructor and the course, well, it’s simple.
He has been working to make his hands stronger, because he knows the past two years, he has been able to get his fingertips on a lot of passes but hasn’t been able to grip the ball well enough. Then there’s the simple explanation: Hand school is really “catching the ball just all day. Any time you just chillin’, just be catching something.”
Slay said he has a goal of catching 1,000 passes by the time OTAs finish up, an idea he borrowed from Lions safety Glover Quin. To do that, he makes sure he catches 100 passes a day as often as he can. He has no goals -- at least not numerically -- for the amount of interceptions he wants to have in 2016, but he said, “Shoot, if I catch 15, hey, I might run out the building.”
Said Lions coach Jim Caldwell: “He’s trying to isolate some things and trying to get a little bit better. There is always room for improvement in our game. If you’re not getting better, your opponents certainly are.”
Although he’s expected to be Detroit’s top cornerback this fall after the retirement of Rashean Mathis earlier this year, Slay still thinks he will get a good amount of chances for picks to come his way. Why? He figures he’ll draw an opponent’s top receiver often this season, something that likely will start during joint practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers, when Slay against Antonio Brown would be must-view material for spectators.
“You should probably want to throw to your best guy,” Slay said, perhaps baiting quarterbacks months before the season is even starting.
He wanted to become an interception magnet last season, but after the Lions got off to a rough start and he had a couple of high-profile near-interceptions that turned into big gains for opponents, his fellow defensive backs sat him down and had a conversation with him. They told him to not focus on going after the flashy interception, but to get the knockdown, break up the play and be satisfied with that.
Slay believed in the message then, and it helped him grow as a cornerback. It gave the supremely confident corner even more belief in his abilities to where once again he can go back to his old goal -- this time knowing he has a better chance of turning into the shutdown corner the Lions hope he’ll be.
Slay has seen the lists of top-10 cornerbacks. He has seen his name appear on them. And he knows there’s a way for him to move up, something hand school can help with.
“I would have easily been a top-five guy this year, easily, if I had picked the ball,” Slay said. “But it’s gonna change. It’s gonna change.”