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Mike Mayock’s heavy draft investment in the secondary could pay off early

Two firsts, one second, and two fourths — all since 2019 — and they aren’t playing like newcomers in camp

NFL: SEP 09 Broncos at Raiders Photo by Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock could have gone in any direction with his first two drafts — his dream job after 15 years of losing sleep over sleepers — but his emphasis hasn’t been subtle: the team needs to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Not just now but for the long-term. He said as much in his introductory press conference:

We have to matchup better with the Chiefs in all key areas. We have to continue to improve our pass protection and our pass rush. I think it starts there. I think we gave up too many sacks, we didn’t get enough. We have to add some speed to this football team. You saw how fast they are. The Chargers are fast. This is a fast division. The Denver Broncos have two great rushers. We have to continue to improve at all areas. We have some resources. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be a player at every position to meet the needs this year.

Since then, the Chiefs have added Clyde Edwards-Helaire at running back, Mecole Hardman at receiver and Keleche Osemele at right guard. The only player on Kansas City who might be faster than Tyreek Hill is Hardman. That’s even more speed.

The Broncos have added receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler (who John Elway claimed to clock running a 3.93 “40-yard dash” during a college game against Michigan), Noah Fant (fastest tight end in the 2019 draft), tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (“dazzled” with his 40-yard dash), running back Melvin Gordon, guard Dalton Risner, center Lloyd Cushenberry and tackle Demar Dotson. They also found out that Courtland Sutton is really good.

The Chargers have few changes offensively other than the big one — replacing Philip Rivers with Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert — but turned Austin Ekeler into a receiving threat, giving them four notable ones along with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Hunter Henry. They also rebuilt the offensive line with Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner added this offseason. Mayock would be more concerned about protecting Derek Carr against the Chargers of course since they could have one of the NFL’s toughest defenses next season.

And other than answering those calls for offensive speed by spending firsts on Josh Jacobs and Henry Ruggs, Mayock too has focused on the defense. He’s focused a lot on the defense. Jacobs and Ruggs have earned plenty of attention up to this point but it could be the secondary’s turn to be cited as the reason for why the Raiders will be worth betting on this season.

“We have to continue to improve our pass protection and our pass rush.”

In Mike Mayock’s first offseason, he used free agency to replace Osemele and right tackle Brandon Parker with Richie Incognito and Trent Brown, an overlooked early victory for the Raiders GM. Then with his first ever draft pick he did start with pass rush, selecting Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick in 2019. He got an even more productive rookie pass rusher in the fourth round with Maxx Crosby.

But that is most of the story with regards to protecting and getting to the quarterback. Outside of signing Carl Nassib and drafting John Simpson in the fourth round — both in 2020 — Mayock hasn’t spent much time in rushing the passer or keeping rushers off of him. Plenty more draft capital has been spent on the secondary.

The Raiders picked safety Johnathan Abram with the 27th pick and immediate reports were positive, signaling an early impact by Abram. That did not happen because he basically missed the season, but Abram’s return in 2020 only means more for the potential height of the secondary’s ceiling this year.

It was only 13 picks later that Mayock selected cornerback Trayvon Mullen out of Clemson. Then in the fourth round, cornerback Isaiah Johnson out of Houston. Three of Mayock’s first six draft picks were defensive backs.

Mullen’s first season didn’t draw much attention but according to Pro-Football-Reference, he was targeted 68 times, allowing 38 catches for 447 yards with two touchdowns allowed. Those would be pretty good numbers for any corner and not just a rookie. In any case there was considerable optimism about Mullen by the end of his first season.

That optimism has carried over into 2020 training camp.

Getting back Abram and monitoring the progress of Mullen would be exciting on its own, but Mayock doubled down on his investment in an elite young secondary to keep pace with Hill, Hardman and Hamler.

The Raiders drafted cornerback Damon Arnette with the 19th overall pick this year, safety Tanner Muse at pick 100 and Mayock used his final selection — albeit at the beginning of day three — on cornerback Amik Robertson. That makes six picks in the secondary in the first four rounds over only two years.

Dime! Dime! Dime!

Of course, Muse may be more of a linebacker than a safety but anything would be a bonus if Abram, Mullen and Arnette pan out.

Las Vegas heard more “Who”’s than “Oooooh”’s when they selected Arnette, not often projected in the first round, but you wouldn’t know it based on training camp reports and contributing immediately is not as rare for corners as it might seem. In the 2010s, 13 of a possible 23 first round cornerbacks started at least 14 games during their rookie seasons. Among them, players like Tre’Davious White, Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Peters, Desmond Trufant and Devin McCourty were able to have significant contributions and they weren’t alone.

But Peters led the NFL with eight picks and McCourty had seven as a corner when they were rookies in their respective seasons. White had four picks as a rookie. Interceptions are just one stat and not the defining one for cornerbacks but these players were on the field all the time and not incapable of changing the outcomes of games in a positive direction.

Arnette has just as good of an opportunity to contribute as a rookie as any of those other players before him and based on camp, there are those who seem certain he will.

Paul Guenther likes what he sees too.

“He’s not scared, he’s real patient at the line of scrimmage, he trusts his speed and his technique. But that’s really what we expect out of him every day when he goes out there.”

And is speed an issue for Arnette, who ran a 4.5 at the combine? Not when it comes to defending the fastest receiver in the draft as Arnette is reportedly comfortable covering Henry Ruggs already. If he needs help, Mayock’s also been busy adding a veteran presence to the secondary.

Though the most notable signing there has been safety/nickel corner Lemarcus Joyner — a player that Mayock and Jon Gruden hope is as ready for year two as he says he is — Mayock is perhaps just as high on the addition of Damarious Randall at strong safety this year.

“I had him as the No. 1 free safety coming out of college and I think he has movement skills and he’s been a corner and a safety, so you gotta like the fact that he can run,” Mayock said. “I think he is invested in a prove-it type year and we’re in a really good situation because we really like Erik Harris. I thought he had a solid year last year, too.”

Add to that Prince Amukamara and Jeff Heath and the Raiders secondary is about as recognizable to Mayock from when he arrived as Tom Cruise in the second half of Vanilla Sky.

One season has passed since Mayock took over as GM and yet the only player remaining in the secondary in that time is Erik Harris. This:

Karl Joseph, Travis Carrie, David Amerson, Reggie Nelson, Sean Smith, Dexter McDonald, Keith McGill, Shalom Luani, Antonio Hamilton, Harris

Has turned into this:

Johnathan Abram, Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, Damarious Randall, Prince Amukamara, Lemarcus Joyner, Amik Robertson, Jeff Heath, Isaiah Johnson, Nevin Lawson, Harris

Mayock sees those names and believes this is how he’ll live the dream. He just needs these corners and safeties to catch those same Zs — as well as the Xs and the Ys.