In the final post in a series on the state of the Oakland Raiders roster heading into 2018, Hayden Nadolny finishes with the position of safety.
The Raiders safety unit took a step back from their play in 2016, like much of the Oakland team this past season. Karl Joseph had a sophomore slump, while Obi Melifonwu’s season never got out of first gear, and Reggie Nelson, even when going flat out, just didn’t reach his full potential or playing ability for the Raiders.
Despite a majority of the squad underperforming, there were bright spots as many of the players did well on special teams throughout the campaign.
Let’s take a look where the Raiders stand as we open the free agency season this week in the NFL:
Joseph had a promising rookie year but his ascension appeared to stall in 2017. He was stout against the run but struggled frequently in coverage. His lack of size really hindered him when he was asked to cover bigger tight ends in man coverage. Given Joseph’s small stature with his skill set, he will be best off as a roaming safety. This should fit well into Paul Guenther’s scheme. With improved coaching on the defensive side of the ball, Joseph has the potential to shine as a feature playmaker of the secondary.
Melifonwu’s season never fully got off the ground. He was injured in the off-season, missing the majority of the season due to a knee injury. When he returned from IR, the former coaching staff placed him at corner against Tom Brady, and then benched him as soon as it backfired on them – surprise, surprise. The Raiders like Melifonwu’s length and speed, but he needs to be able to handle the rigours of a full NFL season. The Raiders drafted Melifonwu last season with the intent of playing him in situational matchups last year, projecting him into a starter’s role in 2018. With a new coaching staff, and with Melifonwu’s rookie season being so underwhelming, it will be interesting to see how much they lean on him moving forward.
Luani flashed as a playmaker in pre-season, and continued that form into the regular season, recovering a trick onside kick against Tennessee in Week One. After that, the playmaking stopped. Luani always gave 110% on every snap but there were times when he got extended snaps on defense, that he was every bit the seventh round rookie. It will be interesting to see how Luani develops under this new coaching staff. At the very least, in Luani, the Raiders have a competent special teamer who will be able to fill in at safety as a solid backup.
Impending free agents:
Another year older, and another step slower (if that’s possible) was the theme of Nelson’s 2017 season. The previous year Nelson had a knack for making plays at key moments in games. It made up for his lack of speed and poor angles. In 2017 however, those plays were few and far between. His hips were stiff as ever, which meant he was turning 10-yard plays into 30-yard plays for opposing receivers. Nelson was solid in the run game, but he might have been the worst safety in the entire league when dropping into coverage. Nelson played under Guenther in Cincinnati so there’s a very small chance he is re-signed, but I would be willing to bet big against it.
Harris was the best special teamer not named Marquette King this past year. He is listed as a safety though he only played 3 snaps there in 2017. According to Levi Damien, Harris will receive his ERFA tender shortly, ensuring he remains in Oakland for another season.
Like Harris, McGill is a very good special teamer, whose long and lanky frame helps him win the leverage battles against his opponent. He played safety at times last season, but it was a rarity (played a grand total of 70 snaps on defense for the entire 2017 season). Having great special teams is a must if you’re going to win games consistently, but it shouldn’t at the expense of being unable to fill other more important positions due to salary cap issues. Given the Raiders’ limited salary cap space, McGill is worth re-signing only on a league minimum (or just above) contract.
Free agency targets:
Where the Raiders look in free agency for an additional safety will ultimately depend on whether they view Melifonwu as a starter or if he’s the first backup. If they view Melifonwu as a starter, they’ll be looking for backups who could start should injuries arise, whilst being a key contributor on special teams. Michael Thomas, Corey Graham, Tavon Wilson, Eddie Pleasant and Keith Tandy all could fit this role.
If the Raiders want a starter at the safety position, Tre Boston would be my top target.
Boston was a starter for the Chargers at safety last season. He notched up an impressive five interceptions and was one of the better safeties in coverage for the year. Spotrac project Boston’s next contract to be worth a little over $8 million per year, so he may be out of the Raiders price range. A cheaper option will be Bradley McDougald. McDougald was a jack-of-all-trades in Seattle last season, after being inserted into the line-up following Kam Chancellor’s injury. In addition to being lined up at safety, McDougald lined up in the slot in a “big nickel” formation, and also sometimes as a linebacker. On film, his man coverage, both from the slot and against tight ends, was a highlight. He is not going to lay the wood on his opponent but he puts himself in solid positions to make plays around the football. He would be a great complimentary piece who would add a lot of versatility to Guenther’s defense.