Head coach Jack Del Rio vowed to upgrade the Raiders' secondary earlier this offseason. A concerted effort was required after a less-than-stellar season on defense due in large part to disappointing performances on the back end.
Nate Allen was hurt most of 2015. DJ Hayden underwhelmed despite a season’s full health, and Keith McGill never earned playing time on defense. TJ Carrie was pulled from cornerback to safety and back again.
The Raiders went in search of secondary stability, and found some on the free agent market. They added cornerback Sean Smith from Kansas City and Pro Bowl free safety Reggie Nelson from Cincinnati. Both players should be inserted directly into the starting lineup and become fixtures in a defense they fit well.
Smith is a lanky, physical corner who plays well off his man, capable of baiting throws and making plays on the ball. His size and skill set fits the new Raiders mold for cornerbacks, and should be able to plug and play.
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The Raiders prefer playing with a single-high safety in many situations, and Nelson can man that post well. He and Allen have the versatility to alternate roles as well, giving some interior defense some flexibility.
The Raiders need a true ball hawk in the back with Charles Woodson retired, and Nelson can certainly fill that role.
While Smith and Nelson represent upgrades, there’s another improvement over defensive backs from a year ago. That is cornerback David Amerson, a Week 3 waiver claim who flourished in the Raiders’ system. The 2013 second-round pick never found footing in Washington, and was released early last year. Amerson quickly earned playing time and ended up with four interceptions and a whopping 26 pass breakups.
Those players account for three of four expected starting secondary spots but, as Del Rio pointed out when promising to upgrade the secondary, the Raiders plan to add defensive backs through free agency andthe draft.
Adding Smith and Nelson won’t preclude the Raiders from drafting defensive backs high in the draft. The Raiders need more talent at cornerback –- there’s no guarantee Amerson’s run will continue –- and youth at the strong and free safety spots.
The Raiders attacked receiver and tight end with veterans and rookies, with positive results. An overhauled out back would shore up a weak area and help their pass rushers get after the quarterback.
There are more defensive backs coming down the pike, especially at safety, but the secondary has already made significant upgrades with the draft still on the horizon.