In the AFC West, defending the high flying aerial attacks from the Chiefs and the Chargers is a high priority for Gruden’s coaching staff. To accomplish this, Mike Mayock added three defensive backs in the draft using the 27th overall pick on safety Johnathan Abram and then doubling up at cornerback with the 2nd and 4th round picks being Clemson CB Trayvon Mullen and Houston CB Isaiah Johnson.
Mullen and Johnson are similar in a few ways, both boast prototypical size and speed for the position. Mullen at 6’1”, 200 lbs, notched a 4.46 40-yard dash and has played at a Championship level in college. Johnson is even bigger at 6’2” with a 79-inch wingspan, and faster churning out a 4.4 flat 40 time in addition to other superb athletic testing at the combine. When Gruden talked on the phone with Johnson after selecting him in the fourth round he told the former Houston CB that they were thinking of taking him in the 2nd round and the Raiders were shocked to find he was still available in the fourth round.
Let’s take a look at how each player fits in the Raiders defense and how they can contribute. We’ll use alternating examples from each rookie’s college film to show how they compare.
When you think of a press corner, someone with the build of these rookie defensive backs will pop in your head. Having the requisite length to play press coverage is one thing, but there is also a lot of technique that goes into doing it at a high level. Both corners will be asked to play plenty of press in Paul Guenther’s scheme.
This is a great rep from Mullen who is using the “press motor” or “soft shoe” technique Guenther asks his corners to play. He needs to gain ground with quick steps backwards while mirroring the release of the receiver. The coaching point in this technique is keeping shoulders squared as long as possible, forcing the receiver to pick a side. Mullen stays patient in this rep, transitioning into a back shoulder position perfectly defending this sideline pass.
Johnson is using a slightly different press technique, the kind Rashaan Melvin was used to before coming to the Raiders last off-season. This is a “hard press” or “true press” coverage where the defensive back takes a flat step and immediately re-routes the receiver. We see Johnson miss because instead of staying square, he turns his body too soon in the play. He is able to recover because if his awesome athleticism and pins the receiver to the sideline forcing an incompletion. Up and down rep from Johnson.
This time against an inside release, Mullen does a great job of mirroring and getting his hands on early in the rep. Against inside releases, cornerbacks need to “squeeze” their man towards the safety help. This means maintaining close body contact leaning on the receiver forcing him inside. We see Mullen squeeze the receiver which pays off when the Duke pass catcher breaks inside. Had Mullen not squeezed down, he wouldn’t have been in position to make this play on the ball.
Against an inside release Johnson needs to squeeze the receiver but we see him simply run vertical. The receiver ends up inside the numbers and Johnson is outside the numbers. Good thing for Johnson this was a run play because if that receiver breaks across the middle, Johnson would have no chance to get back in phase. It’s important to remember that Johnson converted to cornerback after playing wide receiver his first two years of college, he is definitely a work in progress at this point.
NFL cornerbacks needs to know how to play a variety of techniques. The more they have in their tool bag, the better they will be able to disguise and play situational football. There are times in Guenther’s scheme where cornerbacks will have to play off coverage. Mullen and Johnson can improve in this area.
Mullen wasn’t asked to play off coverage too often in Clemson’s scheme but when he did he had mixed results. This rep against NC State is a great example of how Mullen frequently stays patient, trusts his technique, and understands down and distance. He sits on this route run at the 1st down markers and break up the pass, looking at the quarterback the entire time.
Johnson played much more off coverage and actually looked more comfortable than when he played press. In this example you can argue Johnson has better eye discipline, keeping his eyes on his man and not peeking at the quarterback until the receiver breaks. Johnson takes an extra step getting out of his break but again his athleticism and length help him make up for less than perfect technique and he notches a pass break-up.
As is often the case, longer cornerbacks can struggle to change direction in space. Mullen didn’t often look lost, but when he did it usually happened in off-coverage. Mullen is just hopping around too much and his usual patience isn’t present during this play against Boston College.
Johnson was guilty of some of these down reps as well. Tall corners can’t be expected to change direction like a smaller player might. Johnson initially stays patient and breaks on the slant route. Too bad the receiver is setting up the “sluggo” and Johnson gets beat for a touchdown.
One of the knocks on Mullen is his relative lack of ball production when compared to the rest of the class. Mullen secured 4 career interceptions and 7 passes defensed in 32 games played. Much of the lack of production stemmed from the fact that there were 4 future NFL defensive lineman rushing the passer and quarterbacks had to get the ball out quick when facing Clemson. That being said the few times he was challenged in coverage, he usually got the better of the offense. The interception above shows he has great ball skills and can make acrobatic plays on the ball.
Johnson (being originally recruited to play wide receiver) has the ball skills that most defenders dream of. Much of his ability to make plays on the ball comes from his superior size and arm length. Like this play in cover 2, Johnson cushions the vertical route and is able to extend and bat down this hole shot. In 22 games played on defense, Johnson secured 4 interceptions and 12 passes defensed. He’s just scratching the surface of his ability as a defender.
Playing professional football is brutal. Even the fast guys must be physical. The premier shut down corners are also great tacklers who can take anyone to the ground. Mullen and Johnson each have potential in this area.
Mullen’s tackling ability it readily apparent when watching film. He can be a fierce hitter on the outside and has proven to be a very good open field tackler. Like most corners he will pick his shots and needs to improve on taking on blockers. But in a one-on-one situation, Mullen is arguably the best tackler in this rookie class of cornerbacks.
Johnson has also shown flashes of physicality but they are interspersed with less than impressive plays. He has the ability to be a solid to above average tackler at cornerback, but needs to consistently have the attitude that the ball carrier is going down. This play Johnson does a good job getting off the block and forcing a 4th down.
Blitzing is a proven element of Mullen’s game. He has many highlight plays where he can affect the run or pass game as a blitzer off the edge. This great play during the National Championship game where Mullen gets a pre-snap read that gives him the green light to blitz is one such exampe. His snap anticipation and rush path is already developed and he should see opportunities to continue blitzing as a Raider.
Johnson, although used as a blitzer far less frequently than Mullen, also has potential in this area. This play he comes unblocked from the boundary shows the reaction quickness and timing to elevate and deflect the pass when he realizes he isn’t getting home quick enough.
Going rep-for-rep between these two prospects its apparent that Mullen is much closer to a finished product at this point and well deserving of being drafted ahead of Johnson. Mullen should push Worley for the starting position opposite Gareon Conley during training camp. A fun fact discovered doing the research on these two prospects is that Mullen hasn’t given up a touchdown pass since high-school. He is a fierce competitor and should be a mainstay cornerback for the Raiders.
Johnson is more of a project. His elite size and athleticism are very intriguing and considering he’s only played the position for a couple years, its possible he gets a lot better as a professional. That being said, he’s too far away to be considered a day 1 impact player and likely won’t be counted on to contribute too early.