Darius Slayton goes from fifth-rounder to Giants' 'can't miss' receiver

Rookie Darius Slayton, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Auburn, led all Giants receivers in 2019 with 740 yards and eight touchdowns. Al Bello/Getty Images

The words fly out of New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton's mouth with ease.

"The 171st pick, 18th receiver taken in the draft," he says during a recent telephone interview with a hint of resentment in his voice. It's as if Slayton has been saying those words to himself since the 2019 NFL draft ended.

And frankly, he has. Slayton, a fifth-round pick by the Giants who is entering Year 2 in 2020, admittedly uses it as motivation.

"For sure!" he said last week ahead of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Panini Rookie Closeout. The former Auburn player explained how each week there would be an examination of the NFL's rookie wide receivers' stats to see where he ranked.

Slayton, 23, certainly did not finish as the 18th-most productive rookie receiver, as he was right there alongside Tennessee's A.J. Brown, Washington's Terry McLaurin and Seattle's DK Metcalf. Slayton was fifth among the rookie group with 740 receiving yards and tied for first with eight touchdowns.

Also, Slayton became the first rookie receiver drafted in the fifth round or later with eight receiving touchdowns in a season since Marques Colston with the Saints in 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The rookie's performance was a pleasant surprise in an otherwise disappointing season for the Giants (4-12).

Breaking down walls

Clearly, something went askew throughout the draft process for Slayton. It didn't matter that Slayton blazed through the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, or that he jumped over 40 inches in the vertical leap or that he caught the ball well during the pre-draft process despite having a reputation for dropping some passes.

During the draft, Slayton waited, waited and waited some more until the Giants finally handed in a card with his name.

"Ultimately people didn't see me as 'can't-miss.' I think people saw me as a good player they would like to have, but the 'can't-miss' guys get drafted in the first three rounds," Slayton said. "For whatever reason, I would probably be a [special] teams guy my first year, so that is probably ultimately what led to the slide."

It appears all 32 teams made a mistake on Slayton. Only the Giants were able to atone for their earlier errors after passing on him six times. But, the Giants had heard about Slayton's weaknesses, including the fact that drops were a part of his game and he was raw, having run a limited route tree at Auburn. The NFL would be a big jump and the expectation was that Slayton would spend his rookie season primarily on special teams.

"Yeah, I knew the criticism," Slayton said. "On one hand, you have to be aware of what people think are your weaknesses. Those are things you wanted to show. My two things were route running and hand consistency. So every workout I did at the combine/pro day, I wanted to catch everything. Run crisp routes. Just show people, 'Hey there is this stigma on me. But just because it's out there doesn't mean it's true.'"

Maybe there was more to it. Even the Giants seemed surprised, beginning in the spring when Slayton and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones were doing serious damage with the second-team offense.

If Slayton can build on his promising 2019 season, he can be the Giants' first full-time Day 3 starter since Devon Kennard in 2014. If he takes his game to the next level, he can be the Giants' first Pro Bowl position player drafted in the third round or later since Justin Tuck in 2005. It has been that long.

"He's quiet, so we didn't really know what kind of personality, football knowledge, instincts he had," former Giants offensive coordinator Mike Shula said late last year. "I think all of those were probably more than we thought. He has a calmness to himself."

This is part of how Slayton, despite being slowed by a hamstring injury, impressed the Giants and surprised the league. His route running wasn't a weakness, but instead a strength. After dropping everything during the first few practices of the spring, even that foible seemed to disappear.

Opposing teams were scared of Slayton by the end of the 2019 season. The Philadelphia Eagles devised a game plan against the rookie in their Week 17 game because he tore them apart in their Week 14 meeting (154 yards and two touchdowns).

Slayton attributes a large part of his success to burying himself in the playbook immediately upon joining the Giants. This understanding of the scheme allowed him to play free and fast throughout the season.

Cautionary tale

Heading into the 2020 NFL draft, Slayton is the latest example of how teams sometimes still get it wrong. His advice at the NFLPA Bowl carries weight.

"Pre-draft, don't worry or stress yourself out," he told draft prospects. "Things are going to work out how they're supposed to be. It's a lot easier to say that now that I've been through it. It's easy to sit up there and let yourself get stressed out over the draft -- who likes you, who doesn't. This reporter says that. Just [don't] worry about that stuff and prepare yourself to perform to the best of your ability and let the chips fall where they may."

It worked out for Slayton, and the Giants were the beneficiary of a starting-caliber receiver.

"I think it went pretty well," Slayton said last week as he signed endless trading cards showcasing his rookie successes. "Obviously I wanted to help get some more wins, but individually, I felt I played fairly well."

But, Slayton yearns for more.

"I got my foot on the gas pedal," he said. "A lot actually."

That happens when you're the 171st pick in the fifth round.