The Raiders gave themselves a major homework assignment this offseason, the equivalent of a 20-page term paper. Revolutionizing the secondary would take some serious research and legwork leading up to a final product to be proud of.
Head coach Jack Del Rio made it crystal clear secondary upgrades would be a high priority, an effort attacked through free agency and the NFL draft.
There was a template for this quest. The Raiders did the same at receiver the year before, adding Michael Crabtree in free agency and Amari Cooper with 2015’s No. 4 overall draft pick.
The effort started with a incumbent evaluation. They felt comfortable with 2015 waiver claim David Amerson, a tall cornerback with 26 passes defensed and four interceptions in 2016. They brought Nate Allen back on a more team-friendly deal, someone capable of starting or being the ultimate super sub.
Then the Raiders started adding proper scheme fits. They spent big bucks on cornerback Sean Smith, providing a veteran presence on the outside who fits the ideal mold for the position.
Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson came near the end of free agency, adding leadership and the range required to play deep safety. He has versatility to play up as well, but Nelson offers stability and confidence on the back end.
West Virginia’s Karl Joseph was the final piece of this new puzzle. The Raiders’ first-round draft pick is a heavy hitter with underrated coverage skills, someone expected to start as a rookie.
“We want to be a really good football team,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Obviously, we’ve talked about the secondary play and our desire to have it perform at a higher level. I think the temperament that he brings, the intensity that he plays with and the instinctiveness that he has, those are things that we covet.
“The secondary should be a real competitive group. We’ve added a couple of guys in free agency, and now to be able to add a player like Karl, it’s awesome for us.”
No member of the projected starting four was a Raiders this time last year. The new group is upgraded at most spots – retired Charles Woodson is near impossible to replace – with depth unavailable last year.
The Raiders clearly wanted Neiko Thorpe back, offering the restricted free agent a second-round tender. He’s an option for the nickel back spot. So is TJ Carrie, a quality slot corner who could end up playing safety or multiple spots. DJ Hayden is in this mix as well. The Raiders didn’t exercise his fifth-year option, meaning he’s in a contract year. Hayden must fight for a role in the secondary, proof both safety and cornerback have gotten better.
General manager Reggie McKenzie was open to drafting another cornerback, but never found a proper match as the rounds went by. They would’ve gone for a top end corner, but didn’t want to select one just to do so.
“We felt like we had a good group,” McKenzie said. “We wanted to add a veteran (in Sean Smith), and it would have been nice to maybe draft a guy too, but if we didn’t like him at that spot, we didn’t reach.
“We think we’ve got a lot of guys that can compete at cornerback. We’re just going to throw them all out there and see who can take the job. It wasn’t an intentional thing to do, to not take a corner. It just didn’t work out that way.”