Don't fault Detroit Lions' Darius Slay, Damon Harrison for skipping OTAs

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Darius Slay spent the better part of a day last month shooting a commercial for a local pizza chain. A week later, he stopped by the Bow School in Detroit to talk with students about developing character.

Slay has kept an arm’s length from organized offseason workouts so far this spring, and no one should fault him or his teammate, nose tackle Damon Harrison, for their choice.

Arguably the two best players on the Lions’ roster, Slay and Harrison need formal offseason workouts about as much as we need more rain right now. They’re proven commodities in this league, essential pieces to the Lions’ defense, and that’s why their desire for new contracts has put their team in a tricky situation.

Lions CB Darius Slay is sitting out offseason workouts in hopes of landing a new contract.

Both Slay and Harrison are underpaid in comparison to their peers.

Slay has made the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons, and he’s entering Year 3 of a four-year extension that averaged a tick over $12 million per year.

That’s good money — life-changing money. But it’s also significantly less than fellow NFC North cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Kyle Fuller make at $14 million per season.

Harrison signed a five-year deal with the New York Giants in 2016 that, at $9.25 million per year, seems just as outdated. Malik Jackson, Star Lotulelei and Sheldon Richardson all make between $10 million and $12 million per season, and none had the type of impact Harrison did with the Lions in 2018.

I’m all for players using what leverage they have to try and maximize their take-home in what are incredibly short careers, and make no mistake, that’s what Slay and Harrison are trying to do.

Detroit Lions fans cheer on new defensive tackle Damon Harrison before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field, Oct. 28, 2018.

Already, both players have forfeited $250,000 workout bonuses to stay away from the team, and if they don’t report for next week’s mandatory minicamp they’ll trigger a maximum fine of $88,650 as well.

At 28 and 30 years old, respectively, Slay and Harrison still should have good seasons left in their bodies, though they’re almost at the point of their careers where it’s now or never for big deals.

Thirty-year-old cornerbacks, which Slay will be if he lets his current deal run its course, don’t often cash in big on the open market, and run-pluggers like Harrison are some of the most undervalued commodities in the NFL.

That’s what makes this an extra difficult situation for the Lions to navigate, and why Slay and Harrison — led by agent Drew Rosenhaus, who helped Antonio Brown engineer his way out of Pittsburgh and to a new contract with the Oakland Raiders — would be wise to skip next week’s workouts as well.

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From a purely business standpoint, the last thing the Lions need is to do bad deals. Extending Slay or Harrison with two years left on their contracts would set a dangerous precedent for the team, and depending on the money and structure, it could come at a point of diminishing returns.

But there’s also the human element to factor into things.

The Lions can’t afford to have another season like last year’s six-win campaign, and the happier they keep two of their star players, the more likely they are to experience some success in Matt Patricia's second year.

That’s not to suggest Slay and Harrison will mope through the season if they don’t get new deals, but there are plenty of past examples of contractual issues spilling over onto the field. (Remember the 2012 Lions, when it seemed like half the roster was playing on expiring contracts?)

I don’t know that there's a solution that will satisfy all parties involved.

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Slay and Harrison certainly won’t hold out in the fall, when real fines kick in, unless they’re trying to angle their way out of town in a trade, so the Lions could play hardball and cross their fingers and hope everything turns out all right.

Slay and Harrison could go the Brown route and really force the issue, but neither player has given any indication he's that level of unhappy in Detroit.

Maybe there's some common ground to be found in the form of a modified contract, similar to what the Broncos did with Chris Harris last week, where the team guarantees a little more money — Harris got a 33% raise and will now make $12 million this fall — but doesn't add years to the deal and all sides agree to talk again after the season.

Whatever the case, don't fault Slay or Harrison for staying away from the Lions this spring. They're making business decisions, and that's something more players should feel empowered to do.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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