When the NFL schedule was released in May, top Eagles cornerback Darius Slay dug out his notebook.
As he peeped at all of Philadelphia’s 2021 opponents, Slay jotted notes down on possible matchups against opposing top receivers. One particular game that piqued his interest for a moment was a matchup scheduled on Halloween against his former team, the Detroit Lions.
Asked after Friday’s training camp practice if he’s still excited for that game, Slay took a comedic approach.
“Not anymore,” Slay said with a big laugh. “If [former Lions coach] Matt Patricia was there still, I would’ve been very excited.”
Slay spent the first seven years of his career with Detroit, where he had three Pro Bowl seasons. He was traded to Philadelphia in March 2020, and he signed a new three-year deal worth $50 million, including $30 million guaranteed.
Around this time last year, the Eagles were favored to win the NFC East. But they struggled mightily during Slay’s first season in Philadelphia and finished with a 4-11-1 record. Now led by first-year coach Nick Sirianni and new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, the defense will rely on veterans, such as Slay and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, to help with the team’s latest transition phase.
“The only thing different to me is the environments around the locker room and the coaching staff,” Slay said. “[With me] playing on the defensive side of the ball, there’s not too many coverages you can throw in there without me already having seen it because I’ve been in the league nine years. Just adapting to the culture and trying to do as much as the coaches need me to do.”
Slay said it’s helpful that Gannon has experience coaching defensive backs. Gannon recently served as cornerbacks coach for the Colts for three seasons. Prior to that, he was an assistant defensive backs coach with Minnesota from 2014-17.
“[Gannon] understands what it takes to be on the back end,” Slay said. “It’s hard back there. It ain’t pretty. We’re the last part of the defense. It’s tough making plays. With him being a corners coach, he understands.”
Even during early training camp practices in July, Gannon has emphasized creating more turnovers. While speaking to reporters earlier in the week, newly acquired cornerback Steven Nelson flashed his knuckles, which appeared to be slightly bruised.
Nelson, who’s expected to start at the outside cornerback spot on the opposite side of Slay, with Avonte Maddox shifting into the slot, said his battered knuckles are an after-effect of the coaches stressing to players to punch the ball out at every opportunity.
“We have a very defined language with how we talk about takeaways,” Gannon said Thursday. “You guys are going to see that in practice, hopefully, a lot. We know the value of the ball, and we put a high importance on it. We’re going to coach that up.”
Said Slay: “We hustle. We’re flying around. We’re attacking the ball. We’ve got all 11 guys running to the ball, and that’s what the big factor is. The more guys to the ball, the more plays we can make.”
Personally, Slay aspires to haul in more interceptions. He recorded just one pick last season with six passes defensed. Over eight years, Slay has 20 interceptions with 110 passes defensed. Slay posted a career-high eight interceptions in 2017, when he was voted to the All-Pro first team.
“I’ve got to work on my ball skills,” Slay said. “There were a couple picks I could’ve had last year, but I dropped them. This year, I’m dedicating myself to ball skills.”
Slay is expected to be a big contributor in the team’s pass defense. Away from the field, however, the 30-year-old cornerback has been vocal about his stance against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. The Eagles are more than 90% vaccinated, which general manager Howie Roseman revealed on the first day of camp, but their top defensive back appears to be taking a different approach.
Last month, he posted to his Instagram story: “No vaccine, no bye week lol like wtf” with a thumbs down emoji.
Asked to expand on his thoughts regarding his vaccination status, Slay, who wore a mask while speaking to reporters [the NFL requires unvaccinated players to wear a mask at the team facility], said he tries to be as safe as possible.
“We’ve all got to go home to our families,” he said. “So our job is here to just be safe.”