Teammates talking in tiny boxes. His ather and sister throwing tennis balls at him. A fifth-grade rival resurfacing. Eli Manning tweeting. It has been a weird first NFL offseason for Darius Slayton.
Coming off a breakout 2019 campaign, one in which he tied for the NFL rookie lead in touchdown catches, the wide receiver entered the offseason with what every player and team want: momentum. Then 2020 happened. The coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to adjust, including those in the corner of the sports world.
Slayton did what many 23-year-olds around the country did and moved in with his parents. In his case, home is Atlanta. In between virtual sessions of the Giants' offseason program, which included the installation of a new offense, Slayton spent the initial stages of quarantine training with his father, Eddie, and sister, Maileka. One of the drills focused on hand-eye coordination with the use of tennis balls.
They got into it – but not everyone is exactly a world-class athlete.
"Some of (the drills), your partner also has to be a pretty coordinated individual," Slayton said in an interview with Giants.com. "That was a little tricky doing that with my sister and dad. They're OK coordinated, but definitely some of that stuff is just about tracking the ball, catching it. It's smaller than a football, so if you catch something that small coming fast, a football is like nothing."
At times, he made it look that easy as a rookie.
His eight touchdowns are tied for the third-most by a rookie in franchise history, two behind Bill Swiacki (1948) and four off Odell Beckham Jr.'s record set in 2014. He also ranks fifth in receiving yards and is tied for sixth in catches in Giants rookie annals.
League-wide, Slayton, who missed the first two weeks because of a hamstring injury, was part of one of the most prolific wide receiver classes. Five rookies recorded at least seven touchdown receptions in 2019: Slayton, Tennessee's A.J. Brown (eight), Baltimore's Marquise Brown (seven), Washington's Terry McLaurin (seven) and Seattle's DK Metcalf (seven). In total, rookies combined for 110 touchdown receptions in 2019 and surpassed 2014 (109 touchdown catches) for the most combined touchdown receptions by rookies in a single season since 1970.
Still, Slayton said his goal heading into Year 2 is "playing with a tremendous amount of confidence." At this time last year, he was working to erase the first impression he gave at rookie minicamp, where he couldn't catch a football, let alone a tennis ball.
"My confidence is something that built as the year went on last year," said Slayton, who caught five of his eight touchdowns and had both of his 100-yard games (121 yards at Jets and 154 at Philadelphia) in the second half of the season. "Hopefully this year, I'll be able to hit it Week 1 running. It's mostly internal. It's just all in your head to me. Especially for receivers, to get the ball you've got to catch it, catch it low, high, behind you. I think it just starts from having unwavering faith in your hands basically."
That's where the tennis balls come into play. Slayton said he picked up some of his daily drills from his college career at Auburn and watching videos of Jerry Rice and DeAndre Hopkins.
While it helps, it's no substitute for the live reps that the entire league has missed this spring.
"You just start to feel the need for it," Slayton said. "Even with fans, I think you start to feel the need for it after a while. So my body is itching to get back out there, itching to compete and just trying to see and meet my teammates in the flesh and be able to hang out with them again – all those things that come with it."
To help scratch the itch, Slayton and a handful of Giants skill players recently worked out in Texas with Daniel Jones, another promising sophomore. Jones led all rookies in touchdown passes in 2019.
"[The chemistry] is growing. Right now we're working on him consistently answering the phone," Slayton joked. "That's kind of the next step in our relationship. He's gotten better. I know he's working hard. I'm working hard where I am, and I know we're both ready to be back together [at the facility]."
Meanwhile, his old quarterback has plenty of time for phones. Eli Manning, who retired in January, joined Twitter in May and gives tours of his home gym to pass the days.
"Honestly, I didn't believe it at first," Slayton said. "I kind of saw somebody tweet about Eli Manning made a Twitter [account], and I was like, 'Yeah right.' Then I saw the account and I was still like, 'No shot. It's some parody, whatever.' Then I went to it and I saw it was verified and I was like, 'Whoa, it's actually [him].' Then I read his first two tweets and I was like, 'Yeah, it's actually him. He would write that.'"
Manning isn't the only one Slayton tracks on Twitter. Chris Williamson, a defensive back drafted by the Giants in the seventh round out of Minnesota, has a longstanding rivalry with Slayton. They went to elementary school together in the Atlanta area but played on different youth teams.
"It was kind of an interesting dynamic there," Slayton said. "Good dude. He's always been a good dude. Every time I've seen him it's always been nothing but love. It's crazy. When we drafted him, I think we had turned the draft off [in our house]. Then we had turned it back on for some reason and then his name came up and then it was the Giants and my parents, my sister, everybody in the house freaked out. They're like, 'No way – Chris.' So it was really exciting when he got drafted. It'll cool to be teammates now, to be on the same side."
Slayton recalled the story of his first run-in with Williamson.
"I was always fast as a child," he said. "When I came to the elementary school, I was the new kid finding my way and all that type of stuff. At the time, Chris was the fastest kid in fifth grade. So obviously, me always having been the fastest, I was like, 'I've got to race him.' And I will say at that point in our lives, he did beat me and it was a humbling experience, to say the least. Back then, my running form was pretty bad, and Chris ran track from that age up. So he already had a very smooth form, smooth stride. It was pretty embarrassing."
As for today, Slayton said he would "blow his doors off" in a race.
Speaking of doors, Williamson hasn't forgotten the white stretched-out Hummer limousines that Slayton and his team arrived in when they squared off in the Gwinnett Football League championship game. Slayton's team was obviously confident, having mercy ruled Williamson's squad, 34-0, in the regular season.
In the rematch for the title of one of the top youth football leagues in Georgia, Williamson's side got revenge and shut out Slayton's by a score of 14-0.
"I mean, I know it had to be kind of embarrassing pulling up in a limousine and losing," Williamson said shortly after the draft. "But you know, it's something I still hold over Darius to this day."
Williamson added, "I don't even think they rode the limos home."