With contract extension, Lions' Darius Slay reaches elite level of cornerbacks

Cornerback Darius Slay has become a key cog in Detroit's defense. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Darius Slay has spent the past few months trying to put himself in a position to be viewed as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, to be in the conversation with Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis and Josh Norman.

He knew interceptions would be one way to get there – a skill he’s worked on diligently during the offseason. The other way would be a massive contract, something he was hoping to land sooner rather than later.

And that extension came Friday, when the Lions and Slay agreed to a four-year deal worth $50.2 million, putting him in the same monetary conversation as those players he was starting to compare himself to. He had told the Detroit Free Press during the offseason he had wanted to be paid like a top-7 cornerback and his new deal puts him -- at least for now -- in that range -- depending on how the contract is structured year-by-year.

It’s a move the Lions had to make and locking him down long-term was a priority for Detroit this offseason. Cornerback has long been an issue for the Lions, a constant rotation of players until the Lions drafted Slay and signed Rashean Mathis in 2013.

By last season, Slay had become a key cog in their defense and the most reliable cornerback the franchise has had since Dre Bly. He was on the cusp of a Pro Bowl berth after emerging as a rising star over the second half of 2015. He became an indispensable player for the Lions, someone Detroit had to have on the field because he was starting to change the way opposing offenses attacked the Lions.

While he had a slow start last season, losing a number of 50-50 balls early, he remained confident and started focusing on knocking the ball down instead of intercepting passes, advice given to him by Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. The advice ended up helping Slay refocus and turned his season around.

By the end of last season, teams were actively throwing away from Slay as he would shut down whatever receiver he was lined up against. After Mathis suffered a season-ending concussion, Slay started traveling with the opponent’s top receiver, a sign of how far he had come after being benched in favor of Mathis during his rookie year.

Slay had always believed he could reach this point, and after Friday’s contract extension, he might be starting to realize he has.