Every year, the media goes in on which young players they expect to break out in a given season. And this year, the name we hear the most with the Oakland Raiders is 2017 1st-round pick and cornerback Gareon Conley. Safety Karl Joseph, the team’s 2016 1st-round pick, also gets plenty of mention. If both of them can break out this year, the Raiders will have a solid pass defense for the first time since they had shutdown CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
Of course, we didn’t see much of Conley in his rookie year due to a shin injury that required surgery. And Joseph was coming off a torn ACL in his rookie year of 2016 then was misused as a strong safety in 2017. But both Joseph and Conley could very well flourish in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system this year.
Conley can do it all but his height, length, feet, hips and speed make him perfect for man coverage. Conley not only has the ability to prevent separation but he also gets his head around to find the football when it comes. He’ll make a solid man-to-man tandem with Rashaan Melvin, who locked up Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins last year. Guenther will have the Raiders in man coverage plenty, especially with all the blitzes he has in his toolbox.
“It’s been a dark world that he’s been in, this young man. He’s had a terrible injury he had to rehab from, he’s had to change coaches, learn a new system and it’s been a slow and steady process.” Gruden said when talking about Conley’s journey so far. “But man is he a good player. When he’s feeling good, you can see why we picked him No. 1 overall.”
Joseph is also a fit in Guenther's scheme as he likes to blitz his safeties, something Joseph does well. He also has ballhawk potential on the back end and plays well in the box but struggles with big tight ends in man coverage. From the sound of things, he may have to do a little of it as one of Guenther's interchangeable safeties but not as much as last year.
“Yeah, well it’s tough. He’s going to have to be isolated on them again in certain coverages against certain formations. That might happen again.” Head coach Jon Gruden said of Joseph at minicamp. “We’re not going to change genetics. There’s going to be times where he’s in a tough matchup. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
For that reason, it would be nice to see 6’4”, 230-pound freak athlete Obi Melifonwu contribute in 2018 too. The former CB has the size and coverage skills to match up with today’s athletic tight ends. But he hasn’t been on the breakout lists as he’s struggled with his health from last football season all the way into this offseason.
“Obi is doing more. Yeah, he is. He’s out there more. He’s out there more. He’s getting close to being all the way back.” Gruden said of Melifonwu returning to health. “I think his confidence is growing. I saw him pull the trigger and really get off the hash and move the other day. You see the 4.4 speed that is talked about. He has a lot of ground to make up. He’s missed a lot of work. It’s competitive back there.”
Marcus Gilchrist looks like he’s going to be the main guy Melifonwu will have to overcome. But Gilchrist is just 5’10” like Joseph and struggles in man coverage against the big tight ends himself so Melifonwu has a shot if he can stay healthy. It doesn’t stop at safety for Gilchrist either as he could also end up being the No. 1 slot CB. He would have to beat out Leon Hall, Daryl Worley, and 2018 4th-round pick Nick Nelson, who’s now healthy.
“Gilchrist. He’s been, arguably, our best safety in camp,” Gruden said in minicamp. “He’s extremely versatile, can play nickel, can play free, can play strong. He’s a Bisaccia guy on special teams.”
Gruden has been cooking up something for the NFL for a few years now so he’s ready to get quarterback Derek Carr, running back Marshawn Lynch and his fleet of receivers headlined by Amari Cooper going. So it’s reasonable to expect the Raiders to put points on the board.
And to protect those leads, the Raiders’ secondary looks to be shaping up to be the best it’s been in years. And to go with it, defensive tackles Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall along with defensive end Arden Key are there to help 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack rush the passer. If all this comes together like it can, the Raiders could be trouble in 2018.
Here’s a look at it all down below.