The coordinator and the scheme that informed the Eagles’ 2020 trade for Darius Slay might be gone, but Slay is not.
Slay might look a little different, having taken advantage in a change in NFL rules to switch his jersey number from 24 to 2, the number he wore at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi.
And it seems likely he’ll play more zone this season under new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, after having been acquired to play shutdown man-to-man under former coordinator Jim Schwartz. Pro Football Focus said Gannon’s Colts ran the fifth-fewest man concepts in the league last year, and Schwartz’s Eagles ran the fifth-most.
But Slay is still the guy who embraces the nickname “Big Play,” however that opportunity arises.
“I’m pretty versatile, try to do it all,” Slay told reporters in a virtual news conference Wednesday at the Eagles’ organized team activities. “I mean, asking me to play man, zone – whatever needs to be done, I can get it done.”
It’s not as if Slay’s year with Schwartz was a triumph. Like most players on a 4-11-1 team, he struggled at times. Slay’s 115.6 opposing passer rating was his worst since his rookie year of 2013. Schwartz’s scheme never seemed to bring out the best in any corner, so, doing something different might be welcome. Gannon said last week he wants to tailor his scheme to his players’ strengths, and he said his No. 1 requirement for a corner is that he be smart. That would not seem to be a problem for Slay.
Maybe the biggest surprise of the Eagles’ offseason has been the lack of a touted addition at corner. One of the team’s main problems last season was on the side opposite Slay, where Avonte Maddox was both injured and ineffective. Maddox started eight games, with the Eagles also trying various combinations of Jalen Mills, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Michael Jacquet.
“I believe in the guys that’s in the room,” Slay said. “Shoot, the staff [does] as well.”
Pressed for the name of a viable outside corner, Slay said it was too early to make a determination.
“We’re just doing OTAs. We’re not having competitive practice right now; all we’re doing is drills,” he said. “Everybody’s looking smooth and comfortable in their drill work right now. … I won’t really [be able to] tell until camp.”
Slay said that “as a group right now, we’re pretty solid.”
The most heralded corner addition is fourth-round rookie Zech McPhearson, the Penn State transfer who blossomed at Texas Tech.
“Quick-twitch. Got good ball skills,” Slay offered. “He’s very aggressive; he knows how to attack the ball in all kinds of ways. I’m looking forward to watching him compete.”
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod noted that he played with two of McPhearson’s older brothers, Emmanuel and Jeremiah, at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md. McLeod was a year ahead of Emmanuel, two years ahead of Jeremiah – but he is eight years older than Zech, at 23 the youngest of the eight McPhearson siblings.
McLeod said that the day the Eagles drafted Zech, he was on a group text with some friends he grew up with, and said: “Man, y’all wouldn’t believe, but I think this is another [Maryland] McPhearson.’ Everybody knows, there are, like, seven or eight of them and they all look alike, they all have the same build, and they all play football. I didn’t even know there still was one more remaining.”
McLeod said he was impressed with how McPhearson has “put his head down and just gone to work.”
Slay and McLeod both talked about the energy and enthusiasm of the new, young coaching staff. (Did the previous coaching staff lack energy and enthusiasm?)
“They got a lot. A lot. A lot of energy. I’m loving it,” said Slay, who called Gannon “a smart guy.”
“I’m excited to see what he’s going to do with this defense. … The scheme he’s got for us right now is putting us in a position to make plays.”
There is still a lot of time for general manager Howie Roseman to come up with another corner option before the Eagles’ season opener, Sept. 12 at Atlanta. Earlier this week, Slay tried to do his part to heighten the stakes of that game, when he responded “Eagle” to a tweet from former NFL safety Darius Butler, asking what Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones would be this season. Jones had just told Shannon Sharpe on Fox “I’m outta there,” when asked about his future in Atlanta.
“I was just kinda interacting with the fans a little bit, with the Julio stuff going around,” Slay said. “He’s a talented guy, a future Hall of Famer. Who wouldn’t want him?”
And of course, if he’s on your team, you don’t have to cover him.