The free-agent market does not open for a few weeks, but that doesn't mean NFL teams aren't in position to add significant talent at the moment. Any team looking to get a jump on the cornerback market should give a call to the Detroit Lions, who appear to be unable to reach an extension agreement with Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay. The Lions are open to trading Slay, and have reportedly already about the prospect of doing so.
Our own Tyler Sullivanearlier this week:
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Detroit has spoken to "multiple teams" across the league about a potential trade for the Pro Bowl cornerback. The belief among other clubs, according to Schefter, is that Slay will be traded this offseason. That said, the Lions are "adamant on value."
The 29-year-old is currently about to enter the final year of the four-year, $48.15 million extension he signed with the Lions back in 2016 and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.
As things stand now, Slay has an average annual salary of $12 million -- just the 14th-most in the NFL at his position. Slay comes with an approximately $13.4 million cap hit for 2020, but that could be re-worked with a new extension. If the Lions do, in fact, trade Slay, they'd still be on the hook for his $2.9 million dead cap hit.
With all that in mind, we figure it's time to detail some of the best potential fits for Slay's services. These have to be teams with significant enough cap room to give Slay the extension he wants (and deserves), of course, but they also have to have either enough draft capital to execute a trade or a willingness to throw draft picks around despite not having a ton of them on hand.
We know the Texans have absolutely no compunction about trading draft picks. They traded a third-round pick for Duke Johnson last year and then gave Carlos Hyde twice as many touches as Duke despite the latter being a significantly more effective player. Given the team's holes in the defensive backfield, Slay would make a ton of sense for them. Acquiring and paying him now before they have to hand Deshaun Watson an extension that will presumably make him among the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL also makes sense, and again, we have to stress that Bill O'Brien will give up whatever draft picks a trade partner wants if he decides he wants to get a specific player. This almost makes too much sense.
This is a team that should be interested in literally every single cornerback that hits the market. Philadelphia's secondary was an outright disaster for much of the past two seasons, and Slay would instantly upgrade everything they have on the outside. If they can get it done for Sidney Jones and a Day 2 or 3 pick, plus whatever Slay wants in an extension, that would have to be considered a major win. (And if they then went out and stole Byron Jones from the division rival Cowboys in free agency, it'd be an even bigger one.) The Eagles aren't as high on cap room as some other teams on this list, but they have plenty of ways to create more of it and an enormous need at the position.
The Raiders are nearly as willing to make trades as are the Texans. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock laid out a significant amount of money and draft capital to remake their defense last offseason ... and still managed to finish 31st in the NFL in defensive DVOA at Football Outsiders. Their dreadful pass defense finished 30th, and they really just do not have a single high-level cornerback on the team. The Raiders managed to find some nice talent up front (particularly with fourth-round steal Maxx Crosby) but filling out the back end has to be a priority. Slay could be a big help.
The last time the Jets laid out big money for a cornerback, it didn't work out so well. They can't even really get significant enough cap savings for cutting ties with Trumaine Johnson to make it worth it until next year, either, so it seems likely that he'll stick around for at least one more season. But New York still badly needs help on the perimeter, and Slay would represent a massive upgrade over the players currently manning the corner spots for the Jets. He could also do well in Gregg Williams' pressure-and-man-coverage-heavy defense, which makes for a nice fit with his skill set.
The Bucs have more cap space than all but two other teams in the NFL, and after seeing their run defense take a massive step forward last season, it's time to make sure the pass defense does the same. Todd Bowles is the kind of coach who can figure out the best ways to use Slay in his coverage schemes, and his presence would ease the pressure on young contributors like Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Even with the Bucs likely to shell out big money for a quarterback -- whether Jameis Winston or a replacement like Philip Rivers -- they should have plenty left over to go after Slay as well.
Speaking of teams with plenty of cap room and needs in the secondary ... your Miami Dolphins! Slay is going to play next season at 29 years old so it may not make sense for the Fins to give up much in the way of draft capital to secure his services, but if they were able to pair him with Xavien Howard on the outside, that would give them a pretty big leg up on establishing a solid floor on defense. The Dolphins are a ways away from being anything resembling a contender, but they have the money and draft capital to make aggressive moves like this and jumpstart the process just a little bit without depleting the asset trove.
Slay isn't a perfect fit for Seattle's defense, but he has decent size at 6-0, 190 pounds and the Seahawks just traded for another member of the Detroit secondary who was a good, but not great fit for their system (Quandre Diggs) and it worked out pretty well for them. If they can get Slay to play across from Shaquil Griffin and in front of Diggs and Bradley McDougald, suddenly a unit that has been backsliding for the past few years would again vault itself back toward the top of the league. Seattle has plenty of cap room available this offseason and we have seen they're willing to trade draft picks for the right kinds of veterans. Slay fits the bill.
When the Broncos saw they were going to lose Bradley Roby last offseason, they acquired Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan. With Chris Harris seemingly likely to move on in free agency, the Broncos could do a whole lot worse than looking at Slay as a potential replacement. They have bigger needs on the other side of the ball but Vic Fangio puts a high value on having a strong trio of cornerbacks to make his defensive system work, and that becomes a bit more difficult without Harris in the fold. If the Broncos can get Slay at an affordable rate, he would make a lot of sense for them.
Sure, the Bills already have a good defense. And they already have a shutdown cornerback in Tre'Davious White. But one shutdown cornerback isn't cool. You know what's cool? Two shutdown cornerbacks. Levi Wallace had a solid season across from White, but he's not on Slay's level. If the Bills can pair those two guys together, the talent upgrade may help them stave off the regression that typically comes for defenses that take as big a step forward as Buffalo's did in 2019. With upwards of $80 million in available cap room at the moment, the Bills have plenty of space to make this happen and still have enough left over for other needed upgrades to the roster.
Arizona never ended up trading Patrick Peterson and did take Byron Murphy in the second round of the draft last year, but this is still a team in need of dramatic defensive upgrades. Like most other teams on this list the Cards have plenty of room on their cap to fit an extension for Slay, as well as a need for more talent in the secondary. They may not want to give up draft picks for a player who will turn 30 toward the tail end of next season, but it's difficult to think of a more surefire upgrade for them at a position of need.