The Oakland Raiders made significant acquisitions this offseason to address a long and painful sore point on its defense — the cornerback position.
It’s been such a long time since the Oakland Raiders had a shutdown cornerback, many in Raider Nation may have already forgotten who the last one was. Not since Nnamdi Asomugha wore silver and black has Oakland had a cornerback of that caliber.
With coach Jon Gruden laying down the gauntlet by declaring all roster spots (well, at least most) open, the cornerback position might involve the biggest logjam. Even the projected starters have significant injury question marks, though by all accounts, second-year man Gareon Conley has looked every bit a shutdown corner, while Rashaan Melvin played at a Pro Bowl level until he broke his hand and missed six weeks following a freak interception of Tennessee’s Marcus Mariotta. Behind them is a murky slew of vets who all have a reputation as prototypical “Gruden Grinders.” The competition at cornerback is going to be an intense training-camp battle to watch.
Teams usually keep 10 defensive backs on the roster. Given Marcus Gilchrist’s versatility to play both safety and slot corner, assume the Raiders will keep six corners (including Gilchrist) on the 53-man roster. Given that Conley and Melvin are the projected starters, a slot corner, a dime corner, and two corners who double as special teams contributors are what Gruden and company are looking to fill. Most teams only keep five corners active on game day, so the sixth corner could be kept as a developmental prospect.
With regards to other personnel, Obi Melifonwu is considered, under our assumption, a safety. Therefore, he wasn’t considered in the makeup of this look at the position.
Let’s examine the candidates, as they currently stand, at cornerback.
Gilchrist has worked at safety and slot corner this offseason, learning coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme. He has extensive experience in the NFL, starting all but six games since 2013. In 2017, Gilchrist lined up mostly at safety (571 snaps), but he also lined up as a slot corner (107 snaps) and even as a hybrid linebacker (109 snaps). This offseason, he has spent a lot of time as a safety in the basic 4-3 package, while moving to slot corner in sub-packages. It would be somewhat surprising to not see Gilchrist play a large role in the fall.
A troubled offseason for the young third-year player has not hampered Worley from making an impression on Gruden. The coach has singled out Worley by name on multiple occasions throughout the offseason. In 2017, Worley lined up at outside corner on 678 out of the 777 defensive snaps he was on the field, while he only lined up in the slot on 10 snaps. It should be noted, however, that both Conley and Melvin are able to play in the slot, so one of them could shift inside (depending on the matchup) to get Worley on the field in sub-packages.
The fourth-round rookie would have been drafted much higher had he not torn his meniscus in a pre-draft workout. He will be behind the 8-ball because of missing a portion of the offseason. Despite that, he should be available for training camp and in the mix. Nelson was strictly an outside corner at Wisconsin, but has fluid hips, and, with the right coaching, could develop as a solid prospect in the slot. Given the vets on the roster and Nelson’s limited offseason, it would be a surprise to see him as an active player early in the season — unless he excels on special teams. However, depending on how some of the other vets perform, it would not be a surprise to see Nelson get some significant time on defense.
Hall played under Guenther in Cincinnati in 2014 and 2015. He spent a large portion of 2017 playing as a safety in San Francisco, though Guenther has him competing at the slot corner position this offseason. When healthy, Hall has been a very solid role player despite not having played a full 16 games in a single season since 2010.
Wright has never played a full 16-game season in his career either, yet he has been a spot starter on a number of successful defenses, most recently with the Bills. In Buffalo, Wright spent three quarters of his defensive snaps lined up at outside corner, and has been competing in that spot under Guenther. Given the Raiders’ versatility with some of the corners mentioned earlier, it’s likely Wright and Hall are competing for a single roster spot.
Dexter McDonald, Antonio Hamilton and Tevin Mitchel are the remaining corners who will be fighting for a roster spot, although they face a steep battle to get into the conversation at this point.
With the number of new established vets, expectations for at cornerback should be considerably higher than what they’ve been. With all but Conley and Nelson on one-year contracts, competition won’t be greater. Gruden is hoping a few of these players establish themselves in the system as long-term fits, plugging needed holes in a leaky secondary.
Otherwise, team owner Mark Davis might be tearing the corners of his napkin when he dines with Gruden and GM Reggie McKenzie next offseason.