Raiders roster breakdown: slot cornerback

las vegas raiders roster Casey Hayward Jr.
Las Vegas Raiders roster addition Casey Hayward Jr. adds experience and familiarity with Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme. Photo: Matt Aguirre/Raiders

The Las Vegas Raiders concluded their off-season program this week, giving their players six weeks off until the beginning of training camp in July. At this point of the season, between 75-85% of any team’s roster, including the Raiders roster, is more or less set in ink – barring injury.

Raiders roster Nate Hobbs
New Las Vegas Raiders cornerback, and former Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back, Nate Hobbs (8) has impressed coaches and teammates early in his NFL career. Photo: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

However, there are a few key positions on the Raiders roster still up for grabs on defense, which will undoubtedly give coaches pause in the interim before the start of training camp. The Raiders have undergone quite a personnel overhaul on defense with the arrival of Gus Bradley as the new defensive coordinator.

Former coordinator Paul Guenther never seemed to provide clarity on the roles that each member of the defense had to do. In many cases, each player was asked to do too much, and finding personnel that can literally do it all, is unrealistic for Mike Mayock and the front office. The Raiders roster continues to be a work in progress, and clear progress is being made on the defensive side of the ball.

Compounded by an unwillingness to be schematically flexible, it should be no surprise that the previous defensive unit was arguably the Raiders worst in their history. Bradley comes with a simplified primary Cover 3 base scheme which is simplistic enough for the players to play fast without thinking excessively on the field.

Unlike the previous scheme, each Raiders roster player has a defined role that is not overreaching on talent levels. The biggest personnel question mark on defense lies in the secondary – specifically, the slot corner position. That position was largely an afterthought barely a decade ago but now is a quasi-starter given that teams are in a sub-package requiring the slot to be on the field at least 90% of snaps per game.

The slot corner is a unique position in that it is defending the slot receiver who has a two-way go in terms of route possibilities. Many corners who have plied their trade on the outside cannot have similar success in the slot. Likewise, slot corners can also have a hard time playing on the outside. This position on the Raiders roster has been in flux for some time, and several candidates could step up and grab the starting role.

Raiders roster thoughts from Bradley after minicamp

During minicamp, Gus Bradley identified Nevin Lawson, Amik Robertson, and rookie fifth-round pick Nate Hobbs as three Raiders roster players who have stood out at competing for the slot corner position. While it might seem promising that three players appear to be stepping up to the challenge, the resumes of these players are not exactly anything to make opposing offensive coordinators restless at night.

Nevin Lawson has a long-term history of starting in the NFL, but his last two seasons on the Raiders roster have not been remotely impressive. However, the silver lining is that under Paul Guenther, he was used almost exclusively as an outside corner. During his time in Detroit, Lawson spent considerably more time in the slot and may be best suited to that role. Even so, he is yet to record an interception since entering the league in 2014.

Amik Robertson is a second-year player trying to get his footing in the league and on this Raiders roster. At 5-foot-8, he is too small to play on the outside despite playing exclusively there in college, so he was drafted last year to develop as a slot corner. The resultant lack of an off-season due to Covid-19 last year no doubt hindered his development. Even so, he looked completely lost when on the field last year. It would take an enormous leap for Robertson to play at a level worthy of starting at a position he never even played in college. If he steps up to the plate and produces in the slot consistently this year, defensive backs coach Ron Milus should be unquestionably given an assistant coach of the year award.

When the Raiders drafted Nate Hobbs in the fifth round of this year’s draft, the consensus was that he was a raw prospect and would need time to develop his craft. He has been impressive by many accounts and is indeed in the mix to start at slot corner this season. Hobbs is a tremendous run defender, but he lacks the instincts to suggest he wouldn’t be a liability if the Raiders dialed his number on the opening day of the season.

Bradley has not mentioned Damon Arnette during this period – that’s most concerning for the second-year corner (and last year’s first-round draft pick). With Casey Hayward Jr.’s signing, he and Trayvon Mullen are near certainties to start at the outside corner. Arnette is quite twitchy and is of a prototypical size to play in the slot. Many draft analysts even pointed to the slot possibly being his best position in the NFL when he was drafted last year. Three players cannot fit into two positions on the outside. If the Raiders do not give Arnette even an opportunity to compete for the starting slot corner position, it would further be proof that his selection in the first round was a reach by Gruden and Mayock.

Football is increasingly becoming a game of matchups. As such, it only takes one player to be isolated as a weakness defensively for an offense to run riot. The Raiders roster – specifically the defense – and Raiders cornerbacks, on paper, appears much improved over last year in terms of scheme and personnel. Still, if they don’t get their slot corner position settled by opening day, it may be the start of another lean year on defense for the silver and black.