We’ve taken a look at how the Oakland Raiders cornerbacks battle might shape up, so now it’s time to switch and look at the safety position.
Earning a spot at safety on the 53-player roster could be the most intriguing personnel challenge confronting the Raiders entering the 2018 season. While the battle at cornerback might be the most competitive, the safety positions have the most question marks.
While Raider Nation probably thought it had a fair idea of the safety combination early in the offseason, Marcus Gilchrist playing several downs at slot corner and the re-signing of Reggie Nelson has disrupted the situation. Behind the two veterans are a number of young players with plenty to prove. Meanwhile, Obi Melifonwu needs to get healthy before anything else.
Schematically, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther uses his safeties in a two-deep system that doesn’t specifically have fixed free and strong safety roles. Both safeties are expected to cover half the field, so one might drop down into the box depending on down, distance and offensive personnel. The necessity for versatility at safety is an essential component of the defense. When executed correctly, it compliments the heavy man concepts used by Guenther with his corners on the outside.
Nelson spent 2014 and 2015 in Cincinnati under Guenther’s tutelage with great success. He led the league in interceptions in 2015 (eight) and was named to the Pro Bowl. His experience with the Bengals should enable him to get off to a fast start in 2018, while assisting the younger players.
Nelson’s problem has been his lack of speed. This could be mitigated, however, by only having to cover half the field. Last season, former defensive coordinators Ken Norton Jr. and Jon Pagano often drew up plays for Nelson as a single deep safety reading the entire field. It was a recipe for disaster, given Nelson isn’t exactly Earl Thomas or Eric Berry.
Nelson’s best work came late in the year against the Eagles. He was stout in the box, and had a probable touchdown go through his hands. The Philadelphia game is the blueprint for what Guenther is expecting from Nelson. With Gilchrist likely playing safety in base personnel, Nelson won’t have to be on the field for every snap. It should help keep him fresher late in games.
Joseph has yet to be the safety the Raiders drafted in 2016. He had a solid rookie season and excelled at times, but looked out of place in coverage last year. It’s difficult to determine whether the blown coverage was schematic, from poor play, or both, but with so many players blowing their assignments across the secondary, it likely was not just a personnel issue.
Joseph’s work in the box is very good. He is undersized, but has been unafraid to lay the wood a few times, particularly in his rookie year. He didn’t do that last season, largely because he didn’t have the same opportunities over the middle. Guenther will need to ensure Joseph isn’t lined up in single coverage against bigger receivers, specifically big wideouts and tight ends who can box him out.
Harris was probably the Raiders’ best player on special teams last season. He won’t be expected to contribute on defense this year, although he has had an interception during OTAs. He could play in “break glass in case of emergency” situations.
An enigma, Melifonwu is a physical freak the Raiders were so high on barely 14 months ago they contemplated drafting him ahead of Gareon Conley at No. 24 overall. Last season was nothing short of a disaster, as he was constantly sidelined with hip and knee injuries. When Melifonwu finally got healthy at mid-season, he wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Lining him up at outside corner against speedy wideout Brandin Cooks is possibly the worst move seen by a Raider defense since Chuck Bresnahan called for Rolando McClain to cover Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson 50 yards downfield in 2011.
As Gruden said: Melifonwu needs to stay on the field to have a shot of sticking on the roster
Melifonwu’s role can’t be projected until he gets on the field. Ideally, he is a competent backup who will play a more prominent role as the season goes on. He might get time as a situational defender, lining up against bigger opponents who could take advantage of Joseph. At this point, Melifonwu’s roster spot is far from assured.
#Raiders safety @e_harris_31 has been the surprise of the off season program. Read about his rise and other mini camp takeaways in my latest piece on @SilverBlack2Day to be released later this week #RaiderNation
— Hayden Nadolny (@HBNadolny) June 14, 2018
Luani showed great promise in preseason last year but floundered when given a chance in the regular season. Only two players among Harris, Melifonwu, and Luani are likely to make the team, so they must stand out on special teams to get a leg up on the competition.
Given last season’s poor play at safety, anything should be an upgrade in 2018. Familiarity with the scheme, along with a number of players having something to prove, should bolster the secondary. Otherwise, the Raiders will have to invest in the draft to develop the defensive backfield they have been lacking.