When Ken Norton Jr came over to Oakland from Seattle two years ago, he was leaving a Seahawks defense that ranked number one against the pass the previous two years, both times leading to a Super Bowl run. That pass defense, which has remained in the top five the past five years, has been dubbed the “Legion of Boom”. Shortly after Norton and the rest of Jack Del Rio’s coaching staff arrived in Oakland, every new addition had a familiar look about them.
That Seahawks secondary features big corners, led off by the 6’3” Richard Sherman. At safety the duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor strikes the fear of God into opposing offenses.
Norton arrived in Oakland two seasons ago with a shell of a secondary held together by future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson entering his final NFL season at the age of 39.
Two games into that season, they caught a break. Washington waived former second round pick, David Amerson. The Raiders swiped him up the 6-1, 205 pounder as the first piece of the puzzle and it worked out so well, they gave him a contract extension before the season was even over.
The following offseason, they set out to bag a big corner to man the opposite side and they found their man in 6-2, 215-pound Sean Smith.
With Charles Woodson retired, it was time to work on the safety position. First the Earl Thomas role, which they filled with Karl Joseph at the 14th overall pick in the draft. They also signed Reggie Nelson, but he was always to be a placeholder until they could land a longterm solution. They would have to continue their search for the man who would be fill the Kam Chancellor role.
Even with seemingly three of four pieces in place last season, the Raiders pass defense was among the worst in the league. It’s hard to say exactly all the factors that played into that, but the Raiders made the secondary the focus this offseason because of it.
Their first addition was cornerback Gareon Conley, who they selected with their top pick at 24 overall. He has good size at 6-0, 195 pounds with the ability to play the slot and perhaps outside in future.
But it was their second round choice that could be the real final piece to this rebuilt secondary. Safety Obi Melifonwu comes on as that big, imposing strong safety to pair up with Karl Joseph.
As if it weren’t already apparent, I asked Melifonwu just after he was drafted by the Raiders who he modeled it game after. Without prompting, he said Kam Chancellor.
“I model my game after a lot of people. I try to really study the safeties in the NFL. Definitely because we really have the same size, Kam Chancellor. He’s a guy that I look up to. He’s a player that I kind of want to be, but at the same time, be my own player.”
He even threw in Richard Sherman’s name because he had on occasion been asked to line up in man coverage and lined up there at the Senior Bowl, adding that he wanted to show teams he could also play corner. A 6-4, 224-pound cornerback? That would be something to behold.
“He’s done a variety of roles. He’s played on tight ends. He’s played on receivers. He’s been in the back. He’s been in post safeties. Kind of done a little bit of everything. He’ll come up and strike you. We like him and happy to be able to get him.”
Despite his versatile skillset – or pehaps because of it – he is more than likely destined to be the Raiders next strong safety. As Del Rio noted, he will come up and strike you.
Along with Melifonwu’s 107 combined tackles (83 solo), 20 of those were run stops. Though overall, he gives up far too many catches. On 35 targets last season, he gave up 25 catches while intercepting 4 passes and knocking down two.
His skillset make him an ideal strong safety. That’s primarily where Karl Joseph played his rookie season, which is not Joseph’s ideal position. Melifonwu’s addition allows Joseph to move to free safety which is where Earl Thomas plays in Seattle. Comparisons Joseph received coming out of college last year.
The question of what to do with Reggie Nelson isn’t all that important. His presence allows the team flexibility this season to find the best combination. That could mean Melifonwu works in or that he takes over as starter. That is now a luxury they have. And they haven’t had much in the way of luxuries in this secondary for a good long while.
Smith and Amerson received a lot of criticism for the play of the secondary last season. Much of that may have been unfounded. They had both played well the previous season – Amerson in Oakland and Smith in Kansas City. Two safeties playing in the correct positions and a solid new option at slot corner will go a long way to taking pressure off of them as the outside corners.
This construction hasn’t happened overnight. It may not transform into greatness overnight. It may not ever reach the elite formula they created in Seattle. But for the first time, it appears the pieces are there to make a run at it.