ALAMEDA – Keith McGill’s return to safety started under cover. Raiders coaches asked him to switch from cornerback late last year, becoming an emergency option in a paper-thin position group.
He was out of the defensive mix most of the year, after spending the 2015 offseason program as a first-unit corner. McGill is built like a prototypical Raiders cornerback, and they surely wanted to see if the 6-foot-3, 211-pounder could become an outside cover man.
That didn’t pan out, but this position switch just might. McGill’s return to a position he played at Cerritos College and early in his University of Utah career increased intensity this offseason, and allowed him to perform well in the preseason.
McGill was drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft as a cornerback. The personnel department that chose him remains, but the coaching staff is largely different.
“We’ve had coaches change in the past, and these new coaches obviously didn’t draft me,” McGill said. “It’s a little different, but I’m still here, still a Raider and I still come to work every day. When the games came in the preseason, I just tried to go out do my job.”
McGill did his job well enough to start Sunday’s regular-season opener against New Orleans. He performed well over 67 defensive snaps, with two receptions for 17 yards allowed in five targets.
This playing time was hard to see coming, especially with veteran Nate Allen and first-round pick Karl Joseph available at the same position.
“I think last week was the week where we said, ‘In reality, this is the guy that has had the best camp. This is the guy that’s really earned it,’ head coach Jack Del Rio said. “There are a couple different ways you could look at it. You could go with the veteran guy, you can go with the young guy who has the draft status or you can go with the guy that’s earned it on the field and we elected to go with the guy that earned it on the field.”
At this point, that’s McGill. Joseph should come into play at some point, likely when he finishes catching up from a torn ACL sustained last October at West Virginia and all the time spent rehabbing from surgery. Del Rio runs a meritocracy, and he’ll stick with the best player.
That seems to be McGill, who has re-adjusted well to a position he played in college. He played cornerback his senior season at Utah, but there was a base of knowledge to use at safety that eased the transition.
“Throughout this offseason I think it came pretty quick for him, in terms of becoming comfortable there,” Del Rio said. “He’s been a lot more physical, even on special teams. It’s almost like putting the position switch to his name, it’s like he embraced the whole idea of becoming more physical as well.
"He’s a big man; he’s athletic. He goes from a guy that has questionable foot speed at corner to a fast safety with a lot of range. We think he’s got a future there, so I think he’s done a nice job.”