NAPA – Nickelback is not a third-string corner.
In this instance, it’s not a crappy “rock” band, either.
It’s a specialty mastered by few but required by all in the pass-happy NFL. It’s essentially a 12th starting spot, a rover asked to cover a slot receiver and occasionally be a pivotal run defender.
At this spot, the Raiders have options. Joselio Hanson is the primary nickelback, as he was for the Raiders last season and the Philadelphia Eagles before that. Free-agent import Tracy Porter also has experience covering in the slot, although he’s also a starting corner.
Coach Dennis Allen wants a specialist in that role, which he considers a hybrid position. He also said it won’t be first-round pick D.J. Hayden, whom he doesn’t want to burden with a second position.
“It’s a whole different world in the nickel,” Allen said. “It takes a special ability, a unique skill set to play in the slot. That’s true from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. That's why, right now, we’re going to leave D.J. outside and we’re going to let him get comfortable there.”
Hayden has tremendous influence on who plays nickelback. If he proves himself worthy of a starting spot opposite veteran corner Mike Jenkins, then Porter can slide into the slot without issue.
If Hayden isn’t ready, Porter will stay outside and Hanson will retain a role he’s filled admirably.
Right now, Porter rarely leaves the field in practice. He plays cornerback with the first team and nickelback with the second. It’s a situation he’s grown accustomed to these past three years.
“I can keep it all straight because I’ve done it before,” Porter said. “At nickelback, it’s a matter of studying film, studying your opponent. You have to continually feel comfortable playing the position and you have to be ready for anything. After three years experience, I’m at a point where I’m feeling good about what I’m doing in that spot.”
Porter prefers to keep the spot he has. He was a starter in New Orleans – when Dennis Allen was his position coach – and in Denver before effects of a seizure cut his 2012 season short.
Porter signed with Oakland to regain form, reunite with a coach that helped him progress as a cornerback and prove that he can still play well.
“I always feel like I have something to prove,” Porter said. “Whatever negative things people say about me, the more I want to prove them wrong. Whether it’s durability issues or guys that say I can’t cover, I want to show them I can. Playing in Oakland offers a great opportunity to show people that I can really play.”
While the Raiders are generally thin, the secondary is deep. That’s why Allen has options for how he can fill each role. That’s why the competition for playing time should be fierce.
“We have a lot of guys who can really cover and play defensive back,” Hanson said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.”