ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He came into the league a little bit starstruck. Darius Slay always had confidence in himself, but seeing the guys he grew up watching and then playing against them, it was a thrill.
During his rookie year, Slay made it extremely clear which player he was the most excited to meet, the man he emulated his game after: Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Haden was the guy Slay watched on film constantly. He’s the one Slay wanted to play like, to be like.
Heck, when he had the chance, Slay changed his jersey from No. 30 to No. 23 -- in part because Haden also wore No. 23. He swapped jerseys with Haden in 2013 when the teams played and then had it framed.
On Friday, Slay experienced another milestone when it came to the guy he looked up to. By signing a four-year, $50.2 million extension with the Detroit Lions, Slay shares the same pay scale as Haden, who is in the middle of a five-year, $67.5 million contract signed in 2014.
That was a big deal to Slay.
“It mean a lot, because that’s my idol as a corner, you know,” Slay said. “Joe is one of the talented guys at the corner position and me being up there compared with him, I love it. He’s a very competitive guy, just like I am. I watch his film plenty of times, and I’m going to keep on watching it, because he’s a great corner.
“The only thing I’m gonna do now is just build on it, and I know he got respect for me, and he know I got real respect for him.”
Slay said he doesn’t think the money will put him in an elite class of cornerbacks along with Haden, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis and others. The money is a good indicator of where he could be.
But he knows he has to back it up. He isn’t worried about it, though, saying, “I make myself elite. Money don’t make me elite.”
“I got no pressure on me. There ain’t no pressure,” Slay added. “What kinda pressure that is. You know, just playing ball, something I love to do and ain’t nothing going to change. Just continue to play ball.”
Something has changed, though. Slay is being paid like a top cornerback. He’s going to be expected to produce like a top cornerback. He knows that means he has to continue to shut down receivers like he did during the second half of last season, when he became an emerging star at the position.
He studies the corners mentioned above. He has watched them for years, trying to pick up parts of their games. He used to train with Rod Woodson in the offseason. Then he worked out with his former teammate and mentor, Rashean Mathis, and current Lions safety Glover Quin.
He has learned from all of them, and they all helped him reach the point he’s at now. It’s why he told reporters earlier this offseason that he felt like he’s among the top seven cornerback in the league. On Friday, he was paid like it.
“I just feel like I’m just a great player,” Slay said. “I watch film on a lot of guys, a lot of kind of the DBs, and I feel like I kind of fit in that category. But, you know, the Lions felt the same way, so that’s why we got a deal done.”
With the deal done, Slay said he cried a little bit. Then, after Friday's practice, Slay being Slay, he said he told team owner Martha Ford and her family that he appreciates them and loves them. Then, he said -- and it’s not clear he actually said this to the Ford family members in attendance -- “They need to adopt me.”
That seems unlikely, although they are keeping him around for at least another four years. He was joking, of course. That’s how Slay is. It’s part of what makes him a good cornerback, able to have consistent confidence and a strong belief and understanding of himself and what he’s playing for. He said Friday he’s not playing for himself. He’s playing for his mom -- who he is likely to get a surprise gift for -- and for his two sons and his girlfriend, all of whom were in attendance Friday.
But it was a deal more than two years in the making, something Slay and those in the Lions organization, believed he deserved.
“He deserves it,” fellow Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “Every penny.”