In an unceremonious end to Gareon Conley’s career as a Raider, the franchise shipped him off to the Texans in exchange for a 3rd round pick. Conley is an extremely talented athlete but many wondered if he ever really fit in with the Raiders.
Now that he’s gone the Raiders will turn to rookie CB Trayvon Mullen who has only played sparingly so far in 2019. Like Conley, Mullen comes from a big time college football program. They are both listed at over 6 feet and are man to man corners. The spot Mullen is filling should be favorable to him. Let’s take a look at his game so far this season.
The knock on Mullen coming out of college was his back-pedal and transition. Even the best press corners need to be able to back-pedal and either break on the ball or turn and run downfield. Mullen has improved in this area as a pro.
In limited pre-season action Mullen broke up this pass against the Rams from an off man back-pedal. We can’t see the footwork but Mullen gets there in time to disrupt the catch-point. This was a good sign for his development.
In week 1 of the Broncos game however he failed to make the same timely break on the ball giving up a 22-yard catch and run against Emmanuel Sanders. Mullen is in off-man blitz coverage. This means he’s expecting the ball to come out quick and he wants to jump the route.
Look at Mullen’s foot work. He pedals then hesitates then pedals again before breaking on the ball. When he breaks his foot doesn’t come out of the ground cleanly. Both the hesitation and slow transition out of his back-pedal contributed to Mullen allowing this catch. Welcome to the NFL rookie.
He has been in the game only a handful of times since that game. In Minnesota he again showed he’s working on his off-technique. This time he’s in quarters coverage on the top of the screen. This is actually a blown coverage because safeties Curtis Riley and Karl Joseph both jump the crossing route leaving Mullen alone to deal with the deep route.
Mullen maintains his outside leverage by stepping laterally to adjust to the receivers stem. It does look like his eyes get a little dirty and he may have been affected by the play-action but his ability to flip his hips transition into a sprint is a thing of beauty. Mullen shows the recovery speed to force Cousins to throw it to another receiver.
This is where Mullen shines. He is a physical defensive back who excelled in press coverage while in college. He looks comfortable in this coverage as a pro.
Directly after that big catch an run from Sanders in week 1, the Broncos go right back after Mullen. This time he’s in press man coverage. The technique he’s using is called “soft-shoe” or “press-motor” where the DB gains space by taking quick steps backwards while mirroring the receivers release one way or another.
This is probably one of the most difficult techniques in all of football and Mullen is an athlete capable of doing it. By staying square and in front of Sanders, he forces the receiver to run around him thereby disrupting the timing of the route and forcing an incompletion.
The Raiders will often ask their corners to play Cover 2 from a press-alignment. The corners don’t inch backwards however in this coverage because they have safety help over the top. Mullen gets his hands on the receiver and sees that its a run play.
Without wasting any motion or time, the rookie sheds the receiver and makes a tackle for minimal gain. This is the biggest difference from Mullen to Gareon Conley. Conley failed to make a single play like this in all his time as a Raider and often looked reluctant when it came to the physicality of the game.
After Worley got banged up in the Green Bay game, Mullen came in for a quick play. In a goal-line coverage Mullen knows he can’t give up the goal-line fade and has help underneath and inside. Mullen sits on the upfield shoulder of the route but stays close enough to play the back shoulder throw.
Watch Aaron Rodgers immediately look to throw the fade agains the rookie but decide against it. The negative of this play however is that when the receiver realizes he’s not getting the ball he holds onto Mullen and boxes him out, preventing him from rallying to the throw in the flat. Mullen will eventually learn how to beat savvy moves like that.
Mullen has only played 78 snaps on defense so far this season. In those 78 snaps he’s been targeted 6 times allowing 4 catches for 83 yards. 3 of those catches came in his first ever game as a Raider.
Conley was traded after getting torched in Green Bay. However LaMarcus Joyner and Karl Joseph have also been similarly beaten in coverage all season. The difference is Joyner and Joseph both will tackle. Mullen might struggle in coverage as rookie but he will be a better tackler on the perimeter and that might be the only area this is an improvement.
With such a small sample size however its really impossible to draw any conclusions about how well Mullen will play. The expectation is that he will be asked to play similar techniques that Conley struggled to execute this season. If Guenther can simplify things for Mullen maybe this turns out to be an improvement.