Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio is getting tired of hearing about how young and inexperienced the Raiders cornerbacks are. It was a major topic after last season and that talked ramped up following free agency when the team didn't add a starting corner to the mix.
"There weren't many veteran corners that were available," Del Rio said Sunday. "The best option was to, in our opinion, was to develop. That's what we're doing. They are young. And we need them to grow up. So, we need them to come along and develop and I like the way we're working at it. But, we have a lot of work to do."
The Raiders also didn't add a cornerback in the draft until their final selection in the 7th round (Dexter McDonald) which added more questions about the group of unproven corners the team has.
From Reggie McKenzie's perspective, after not being able to add an experience starter in free agency, his best options were the corners he had added in the previous couple drafts. His first first round draft pick as Raiders GM was cornerback DJ Hayden in 2013. The following draft, he grabbed Keith McGill in the fourth round and T.J. Carrie in the seventh. That was the three corners on whom the Raiders are staking their claim this season.
All three came with a great deal of uncertainty. Hayden and Carrie started a few games last season and were the projected starters. After that it was anybody's guess what Keith McGill would be bringing to the table. He fell behind last season due to injury and had ground to make up.
The 6-3, 210-pounder played much of his career at Utah at safety. The Raiders saw cornerback potential in him, but a transition period was to be expected. In the meantime, his fellow draftee, T.J. Carrie was offering an immediate impact as a starting corner.
"I haven't had too many years of playing corner, so last year was a great experience playing another year at corner in the NFL," said McGill. "I came into training camp a little heavy, so it was more about finding out the perfect balance between my body and what the coaches are asking for me and I think I got a little better understanding of that this year."
Due to his absence with injury much of last season, he was one of the few select non-rookies to participate in the team's pre-camp warm-up. Those practices were invaluable to McGill in helping him hit the ground running in camp.
"That was great, man," McGill said of the pre-camp warm-up. "I'd like to come out here every year and do that early. You just get your body in football shape. You're out training, everybody's out at different facilities in different areas, and you're always doing something different, but when you come back to the football field, you gotta get back in football shape. So, coming a couple days early was great, got some one-on-one time with the coaches, a couple of the other players got to bond with them and it was a good experience."
Now with the entire offseason training behind him and four days into Raiders training camp, he has stepped up in a big way. He is now working exclusively with the first team along with Carrie, while Hayden has struggled and fallen to working with the second team.
While Hayden was giving up plays to Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, McGill was making plays. One particular play provided an ideal comparison between the two young corners.
To end practice on day three, the first in pads, Crabtree beat Hayden to the back right corner of the endzone and Derek Carr threw a laser on a fade route for a touchdown. The next day, also in pads, Carr and Crabtree tried the exact same play in the exact same spot, but this time McGill was in coverage. He climbed the ladder with Crabtree, got a hand up and knocked the ball down.
McGill has shown himself to be the aggressive, physical corner to go along with his great size which attracted the Raiders to him in the first place. In his transition, he has focused most intensely on his man coverage, which he said is now the area of his game in which he takes the most pride.
"Anytime we play man coverage I try to take full responsibility in my job out there, being on an island," said McGill. "And just having my teammates trust me and know that whether I'm playing on the left corner, right corner, filling the boundary, when they call man, they're not going to have to worry about my man catching it."
It's plays like the defended fade to Crabtree as well as the forced fumble he had on Cooper the day before that have had the coaches putting so much faith in him as a major player in the competition for one of the Raiders starting corner spots.
Monday, Ken Norton Jr went as far as to draw comparisons between the Raiders cornerback situation and the one he had with the Seahawks, going as far as to say they "absolutely" had just as much potential as their "Legion of Boom" secondary in Seattle.
"The competition is there," said Norton. "The young corners that I've been with in the past, they started out with no one knowing who they were, then all of the sudden they're the stars of the league. And it's a matter of coaching, developing, time, energy, effort and just the group."
It's an interesting comparison considering due to McGill's size and experience at safety and corner, he had people invoking the name Richard Sherman when discussing his ceiling early on. To have Norton make that direct comparison now is pretty big.
The faith the coaches are putting in him and the cornerback group's potential is a confidence builder for McGill.
"It means everything in the world," said McGill. "It means what we're doing during the offseason, during OTA's, during minicamp, it means what we're doing is paying off, and they have respect in us, and they have trust in us. And once any player feels that from a coach it's a lot of weight off your shoulders. By them not bringing in too many vets or anything like that, it definitely raises our confidence, but at the same time, we just have to do what they're asking of us."
For this cornerback group to surpass expectations this season, they needed a pleasant surprise. They have that in McGill.
"Look, it would mean everything in the world to win that job, but . . . as long I'm in the mix, I'm happy. I just gotta keep moving forward. It's a big step from last year, so I just gotta keep going in this direction."