Six secondary standouts from football’s week that was:
Darius Slay Jr., CB, Lions (NFL): In 2015, Josh Norman went from being occasionally mentioned as one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL to being regularly touted as perhaps the best corner in the league. And that transformation seemed to happen overnight.
In 2016, Slay is the best candidate to make a Norman-like leap into the elite. During the offseason there was a growing buzz around Slay, who had declared himself one of the league’s top corners and appeared to gather some co-signers around the same time the Lions inked him to a four-year, $50 million contract extension despite Slay having yet to make a Pro Bowl roster.
On Sunday against the undefeated Eagles, Slay took a big step toward getting the mainstream recognition he wants. Late in the fourth quarter, Slay forced RB Ryan Mathews to fumble the ball, which the Lions recovered and turned into a go-ahead field goal. On Philly’s next possession, “Big Play Slay” intercepted rookie sensation QB Carson Wentz to preserve the 24-23 victory.
On the game-deciding INT, Slay covered Eagles WR Nelson Agholor perfectly on a deep route and made it look like the ball was meant for him the whole time. It was the first pick thrown by Wentz as a pro. Slay added three tackles and two pass breakups in what may be looked back on later as the breakout game of his breakout NFL season.
Greg Stroman, CB, Virginia Tech (NCAA): Despite fumbling twice in his role as a kick returner, Stroman had a big game defensively in the 25th-ranked Hokies’ 34-3 rout of 17th-ranked North Carolina on Saturday. The junior cornerback had three pass breakups — including one in the end zone — and an interception during a game in which both offenses were adversely impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Tar Heels QB Mitch Trubisky hadn’t thrown an interception this season and had passed for over 400 yards in three straight games, but Stroman and the Virginia Tech secondary (and Matthew) picked Trubisky off twice and limited him to just 13 completions for 58 yards.
Karl Joseph, SS, Raiders (NFL): Around the time rookie mini-camps began, NFL.com ranked Joseph as the first-year defensive back expected to make the biggest immediate impact on his team, even though Joseph was still rehabbing from the knee injury that cost him all but four games of his senior season at West Virginia.
Joseph began the regular season as a backup, but took over as Oakland’s starting strong safety a couple weeks ago. Since then, he’s been making that preseason prediction look like a good one. In the Raiders’ 34-31 win over the Chargers on Sunday, Joseph had six tackles, an interception in the first half that set up a field goal, and a fumble recovery in the second half that set up Oakland’s go-ahead touchdown.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama (NCAA): The sophomore collected three interceptions in top-ranked Alabama’s 49-30 win over Arkansas on Saturday, returning one of them 100 yards for a touchdown. (It was actually more like 109 yards, but in college they just count from the goal line and not where you start in the end zone. Fitzpatrick also had five tackles and two pass breakups.
Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB, Bills (NFL): There were a handful of former Trojans playing in Sunday’s homecoming game between the Bills and Rams at the L.A. Coliseum. Robey-Coleman was the standout of the group, collecting two interceptions and taking one of them back 41 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in Buffalo’s 30-19 victory.
Adoree Jackson, CB, USC (NCAA): The fact that USC beating Colorado is considered an upset makes it feel like we’re not in 2016 but in the early 1990s, back when the Trojans were in a down period (for them) and the Buffaloes were competing for national championships. (Think Todd Marinovich vs. Darian Hagan.) But that’s what happened on Satuday, when USC knocked off 21st-ranked Colorado, 21-17, to win consecutive games for the first time this season.
Jackson, a sophomore two-sport star who is on his way to becoming a world-class long jumper, contributed a pair of long kick returns, made six tackles, and reeled an incredible interception that was reminiscent of Charles Woodson back in his Michigan days.