The Raiders’ secondary has been more or less, a disaster since Reggie McKenzie became General Manager. With the exception of Charles Woodson, the Raiders have not had any playmakers in this part of the field. The Raiders have invested heavily over the past years in Sean Smith and David Amerson. Smith has been a resounding disappointment, while Amerson is now with the Kansas City Chiefs after being released earlier in the off-season. The cupboard isn’t totally bare however, with Gareon Conley looking every bit a stud in the limited action he saw as a rookie.
Conley teased Raider Nation in 2017. Through the off-season program, league sources told me that Conley was the Raiders best cover corner – even as a rookie. He received snaps as the slot corner while the Raiders did anticipate him starting on the outside when in base packages as the season went on.
However, Conley suffered a shin injury, initially described as shin splints, which derailed his season. Conley was able to play in two games before being held out the rest of the season. In his limited time on the field, Conley’s cover skills were readily apparent, making a superb pass breakup that almost resulted in a tip to free safety Reggie Nelson deep down the sideline against the Jets. McKenzie this off-season has labelled Conley a “number one corner,” while head coach Jon Gruden has been equal in his praise. Even Paul Guenther claimed that he had Conley as the top corner of his draft class when he came out 12 months ago.
If the Raiders secondary is going to improve moving forward, keeping Conley healthy and on the field will be one of, if not the Raiders’ greatest priority.
Sean Smith has been one of the more frustrating free agent signings in recent memory. His first season in Oakland was by no means a success, but he significantly got better as the year went on.
This season though was a disaster.
Had Conley and Amerson not been injured, Smith would have been benched and not seen a single defensive snap the rest of the season. For whatever reason, the former coaching staff could never work out how to use Smith. Once Jon Pagano started to let his corners travel to both sides of the field, Smith was able to be in more advantageous matchups. That being said though, Guenther does not have a history of moving his corners around in such a manner. Additionally, Smith is current facing serious criminal charges stemming from a fight with his sister’s boyfriend. The charges, set for trial later this year, could result in jail time.
Hence, the Raiders are likely to need contingency plans in place in the event that Smith is unavailable. Many NFL analysts have labelled Smith’s release ($8.5 million in cap room, zero dead money) as a foregone conclusion, though it’s possible the Raiders will keep Smith on the roster until they either need the extra cap space, or if they find a viable alternative to fill Smith’s roster spot.
McDonald received ample playing time this season with multiple injuries forcing the Raiders to go down the depth chart. He played in 15 games, starting 6, and received significant playing time in 11 (25 or more defensive snaps per game). McDonald was ok, but at times he got exposed as a liability. He still has one year on his rookie contract, so he might be worth keeping as a number five corner who can be a big special teams contributor whie being able to play on defense in a pinch as we saw last year.
Hamilton was active in eight games this season; with the season finale against the Chargers his only real taste of getting significant playing time. In that game, he looked completely inept – blowing coverage consistently. The odds of Hamilton making the 53-man roster in the fall at this point seem remote.
Impending free agent:
Carrie was solid without being spectacular. He was generally in the right spot in coverage and he didn’t give up a whole lot of blown plays like the other members of the secondary, but he wasn’t a playmaker by any means. Carrie is a nice number three corner, and could possibly be a starting corner on a good team in a pinch. That being said, he will most likely get paid as a starter somewhere. If the Raiders don’t land a marquee free agent at corner, the Raiders could opt to re-sign Carrie to ensure an experienced vet remains on what will likely be a young personnel group.
Free agency targets:
The Raiders are in a fortunate position in there being so many good corners available on the free agent market. It’s easily the deepest position of what is a very underwhelming free agency class overall. The Raiders need to decide whether or not they intend to play Conley in the slot when they go into sub packages. Given that McKenzie has labelled him as a number one corner, that is unlikely. Hence, the Raiders are going to need to find a slot corner, and will likely need another outside corner given the likelihood of Sean Smith’s departure from the team.
If the Raiders want to sign a designated slot corner, the best fit would be Nickell Robey-Coleman. He is undersized at 5-foot-8 but plays bigger than his size and is not afraid to get physical as a tackler. Despite his small stature, he’s only missed a single game in his 5-year career. Robey-Coleman is still just 26 years old, so he has plenty of years left at the top of his game.
Another option is Brandon Boykin. Boykin hasn’t played a game since 2015 due to injury, but could be given a one-year ‘prove it’ type deal. Prior to his injuries, he was one of the best slot corners in the league. If the Raiders were to go down the Boykin avenue, they would have to sign hi with a contingency plan in place, because going into the season expecting a guy who hasn’t played in a few years to have a major role, would simply be negligent.
Patrick Robinson would also be another intriguing choice in the slot, but he has only had one true standout season over his eight-year career, which may be the by-product of superior personnel around him in Philadelphia. A wildcard option would be Aaron Colvin, the Jaguars slot corner from the past year. Colvin had a great year surrounded by elite talent on the Jags defense, but is young and will likely be snapped up quickly in the first few days of free agency.
There are numerous options in free agency for the Raiders at the outside corner positions. It really is going to come down to whether they’re looking for a long-term fix, or if they are happy with a short-term solution whilst drafting a player to take that role in the future.
Viable short-term options include Johnathan Joseph (long time starter in the league with ties to Guenther) and Tramon Williams, who had arguably a career best season with the Browns in 2017. Kyle Fuller would in many regards be the “perfect” option in terms of on-field fit, but given his transition tag designation, it’s highly unlikely that he leaves Chicago. Prince Amukamara and Rashaan Melvin are two of the lower tiered options who would provide solid play, but neither have been able to stay consistently healthy. Amukamara hasn’t played a full season since 2013, while Melvin has played more than 10 games in a season just once since 2014. Bashaud Breeland has been a four-year starter in Washington who would be an upgrade for Oakland. Despite just one interception last season, Breeland has exceptional ball skills, averaging 15 pass deflections per season over his career. He would excel in Guenther’s zone coverages. Meanwhile, had Malcolm Butler not been benched for the Super Bowl, he would be garnering a lot more attention as a top free agent. The controversial circumstances surrounding his benching will likely drive his price down, which means the Raiders could get him at a decent price if their off-field checks pencil out.
The last top free agent corner on the market, and arguably the best, is Trumaine Johnson. Johnson has elite size, though he does not have overly great speed (runs a 4.6 40). The Raiders are rumoured to be heavily involved in the bidding war of his services this off-season. That being said, I find it hard to believe that given the relatively modest cap space the Raiders current have, that they’ll agree to pay Johnson what will likely be a market value of at least 15 million per year.