ALAMEDA – Sean Smith is 28 years old, young by almost any standard. That includes the NFL, which values youth and fresh legs in an extremely physical game.
Smith has been around the block, with 100 starts over 108 games in seven seasons representing two different teams. Veteran cornerback savvy, excellent coverage skills and size – the man stands 6-foot-3, 218 pounds – made him a perfect Raiders target this offseason.
Oh, and that he’s still in his prime.
That’s a requisite in this Raiders era, especially when big money’s involved. General manager Reggie McKenzie is willing to ante up for the right player with the right attitude and the right production level.
They decided Smith was worth $38 million over four seasons, with $20 million essentially guaranteed.
That paycheck comes at a price. It requires production and leadership, especially in a youthful position group without another member over 26.
Smith isn’t a speechmaker, but understands mentorship is now part of his game working with a maligned group following a failed youth movement.
“We have a very, very young team back there, especially in the secondary,” Smith said. “I guess my job is to come in here and make them better mentally because they have all the talent and all the tools to make plays. Just have to get them up to par with me from a football IQ standpoint.”
The Raiders hope he can help make others around him better. They also need him to shut down one side, to be reliable enough that safeties focus the other way. Smith isn’t a true ball hawk – he has 10 professional interceptions, never more than two in a season – but rarely allows completions or big plays.
The Raiders hope the older brother sets a good example.
“The first thing you have to do is be here doing the right things yourself,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “He’s been here doing all of the right things like spending time with the younger players at his position, coming in here and being a great teammate. It’s really been very positive.”
The Raiders cornerback corps wasn’t great last season. David Amerson developed into a quality cover man, but 2013 first-round pick DJ Hadyen struggled and nobody took a stranglehold on the other starting spot.
Smith doesn’t care about that. He believes 2016 affords everyone a fresh start.
“You always have to start from ground zero,” Smith said. “I’ve played on a couple of secondaries now that were pretty good and the key thing that it was when we can back from OTAs and the offseason and all of that is last year is last year. We just have to set the foundation now in OTAs, in the film room, trying to get better. …Chemistry always has to start over, get guys back on the same page.”
Chemistry will be built with safeties Reggie Nelson, Karl Joseph and Nate Allen. The cornerbacks have to step up, though there’s more security outside than in recent seasons.
Smith has one side and Amerson the other. Both guys are tall, lanky and can make plays on the ball. Smith, for one, likes Amerson’s style.
“He’s one of the most athletic people I’ve ever met,” Smith said. “(Amerson) can make all the cuts, all the breaks. I’m definitely looking forward to working with him. He’s another young guy who’s been in the league for a few years.
“It’s all mental, just trying to get guys to see the game like I see it, that way I can slow it down for them. A lot of them go out there and play instead of reacting.”
The Raiders hope that happens for Hayden. He struggled as a third-year pro, his first season with full health, but could be counted on in 2016. He took first-team snaps at nickel back during the first open OTA – Neiko Thorpe was out with injury - and needs to show well to earn his role. Smith isn’t worried about past mistakes, and hopes Hayden can start fresh in 2016.
“The thing about football is you can always reinvent yourself,” Smith said. “I had a chance to meet with him for a brief second. There wasn’t too much to talk about. Just come out here with a whole new mind frame, a whole new mindset. Trying to repaint your image.
“The past is the past, but you come out here and work, compete and try to get better. As long as you put it on tape, you’ll always have a job in this league. So, he has nothing to worry about.”