Darius Slay suffered through the familiar growing pains of a rookie cornerback trying to prove himself in the NFL.
Slay, a second-round draft pick a year ago by the Detroit Lions, was given a starting job to open the season, lost it because of poor performance, eventually reclaimed it, got injured and then came back again to start and play well in the final week.
"I feel like I can be the future of the defense," Slay said.
The future is now.
The Lions can’t afford the same type of inconsistencies from Slay this coming season, not after last week’s news that veteran cornerback Chris Houston had been released following surgery for a toe injury.
With Houston missing all of the team’s offseason program, Slay emerged as a crucial piece in a secondary that has been a weakness for the Lions for years now.
It’s hard to imagine this team going very far unless the back end can hold up against a strong passing offense, particularly in a division with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Chicago’s Jay Cutler.
Slay played in 13 games last season, including four starts and about 350 defensive snaps. He was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 92nd-best cornerback in the league.
The Lions, however, believe he has the potential to be much better.
"This kid can play," said Cassius Vaughn, a four-year NFL veteran who was added by Detroit through free agency after playing the last two seasons with Indianapolis. "He was worth the pick. He’s going to be a great player for us this year."
Coach Jim Caldwell added: "We all know that he does indeed have skill. The guy can run. He can flat run. He can jump. He’s got all the physical tools you’re looking for. He’s just lacking a little bit of experience.
"He got a lot of experience out there (this offseason). He’s gotten a little bit better. He’s more confident. We feel good about where he’s heading."
I feel like I can be the future of the defense.
Slay often was matched up against Calvin Johnson during practices, which should make almost anything he sees during a real game not seem quite so bad.
"He’s drawing a tough assignment quite a bit with 81 (Johnson) out there, but he’s doing a good job," quarterback Matthew Stafford said of Slay.
Slay, undoubtedly, realizes the pressure is going to be on him with Houston not returning.
Houston was supposed to be the Lions’ No. 1 corner and help groom a youngster like Slay.
It started that way last year, but then Houston regressed as a player throughout the season and the injury kept him from reestablishing his status with the team.
Slay, meanwhile, admits his career "didn’t start off how I wanted."
"Just being the rookie," he said. "Scared to give up deep balls, losing focus.
"Everybody goes through it as a rookie cornerback. Besides the quarterback, corner is the second-toughest spot out there.
"But at the end of the year, you see I locked in more, made a lot more plays."
Slay feels like that progress has continued in recent weeks.