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Raiders free agency: 5 good value cornerback options

Finding a potential starter for cheap

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Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Haden
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The official start of free agency is just around the corner for the Las Vegas Raiders and the rest of the NFL. Based on Spotrac’s and Over The Cap’s projections, the Raiders are expected to have about $20 million in cap space to play with in the open market, as things stand.

With looming contract extensions for several key players like Derek Carr, Maxx Crosby and Hunter Renfrow, Las Vegas is going to have to get economical in free agency and bet on finding some diamonds in the rough this offseason.

We’ve already taken a look at a few cheaper offensive line and defensive tackle options for the Silver and Black, but what about cornerback?

The Raiders' top corner from last year, Casey Hayward, is a free agent and many expect him to leave and possibly follow Gus Bradley to Indianapolis as those two have a history of success working together. Meanwhile, Trayvon Mullen, the team’s No. 2 corner at the start of last season, struggled to stay healthy in 2021 and will be playing on the last year of his rookie contract in 2022.

So, the need for a dynamic playmaker on the outside is there but, again, the Raiders are going to need to pinch some pennies when it comes to filling out the position room later this month.

Robert Alford

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans
Robert Alford
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Projected Contract: 1 year, $5 million

Age: 33.3

Pros: Despite his age, Alford played pretty well for the Cardinals last season. He allowed just 420 receiving yards and 145 of those came from one really bad outing. The second-most yards he surrendered in a single game was 42, and he averaged just 32 yards yielded per contest a year ago. Plus, the former Cardinal earned a respectable 68.5 coverage grade from PFF, so he proved he has some gas left in the tank.

Cons: The last several years have been pretty ugly for Alford on the injury front. He missed all of 2019 with a broken leg and the entire 2020 season with a torn pectoral muscle. While he did play in 13 games in 2021, he tore a pec again and that made it three years in a row where his season ended on the injured reserve list. Not exactly ideal for someone who turns 34-years-old in November.

Joe Haden

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Haden
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

PFF Projected Contract: 1 year, $5 million

Age: 32.8

Pros: Haden has a long track record of success in the league and wasn’t a bad player by any means last year in Pittsburgh. In 12 games, he allowed just 407 total receiving yards and never gave up more than 75 in a single game, while also adding six pass breakups in the mix. He’d also bring a veteran presence to a rather young position group for the Raiders, so the former All-Pro and Pro Bowler could teach the team’s youthful corners a thing or two.

Cons: While yes, Haden was a solid player last year, it was also one of the worst performances of his career. He recorded career lows in PFF overall and coverage grades — aside from his injury-plagued 2015 season — with marks of 62.1 and 64.2, respectively, and his completion percentage allowed spiked from 51.5 percent in 2020 to 67.3 percent in 2021. That combined with Haden’s age — he turns 33 in April — suggests he might be on the decline, and missing four games with two different injuries doesn’t help his case either.

Ahkello Witherspoon

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Ahkello Witherspoon
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Projected Contract: 1 year, $4 million

Age: 26.9

Pros: Granted, it’s been with limited playing time but Witherspoon has put up some impressive numbers over the last couple of seasons. He’s allowed a 53.4 percent completion rate in 19 games during that span, to go along with 432 receiving yards and 12 combined pass breakups and interceptions to just three touchdowns surrendered. Plus, he’s still young and doesn’t turn 27-years-old until later this month.

Cons: Witherspoon is an interesting case study for the spreadsheet nerds versus old school football guys debates. The numbers say he should be playing, but he’s struggled to hold down a starting spot with every team he’s been with.

San Francisco thought they had Richard Sherman’s replacement at one point with Witherspoon, then they let him walk in free agency and sign with Seattle. Partially due to an injury, the Seahawks traded him to the Steelers right before the start of the regular season, and he didn’t crack the starting lineup in Pittsburgh until Week 13. So, that’s three teams in about a calendar year that have viewed him as expendable, assuming the Steelers don’t bring him back.

Mike Hughes

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
Mike Hughes
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Projected Contract: 1 year, $3.25 million

Age: 25.0

Pros: Hughes is coming off his best season by far as a professional. In 20 games, including playoffs, he allowed just 522 receiving yards and had seven combined pass breakups and interceptions. He also set career highs in every one of PFF’s grading categories that are important to the position — defense (72.9), coverage (72.2), tackling (76.2) and run defense (68.5). In other words, the UCF product’s play has improved after receiving the “first-round bust” label about a year ago.

Cons: As hinted at above, Hughes does seem to fall into the “one-year wonder” category. His time in Minnesota was ugly and ended with him taking just 173 snaps for the Vikings in 2020 — an injury played a role in that, too — and getting traded for a sixth-round pick in the offseason. Also, while he did play well this past season, he still allowed an alarming eight touchdown receptions, four of which came when it mattered most, in the playoffs.

Sidney Jones

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks
Sidney Jones
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

PFF Projected Contract: 1 year, $4.25 million

Age: 25.7

Pros: After getting waived by the Eagles right before the start of the 2020 campaign, Jones has done a lot over the last couple of years to revive his career. In his last 19 games, he’s allowed about 45 receiving yards per game and has 17 combined PBUs and interceptions. Also, he’s posted back-to-back seasons with career highs in overall PFF grades — 68.1 and 70.2 — and has earned impressive coverage grades as well with marks of 71.3 and 69.2 in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Cons: The Raiders would be Jones’ fourth team in as many years and the Jaguars still felt he was expendable even though he played well for them two seasons ago. Jacksonville traded him for a sixth-round pick to Seattle right before Week 1. Also, he has a less than comforting injury history.

As evidenced by his stat line, the 2017 second-round pick is very reliant on his ball skills in coverage. While that by itself isn’t necessarily a negative, corners who are dependent on batting down or intercepting passes typically struggle to maintain their level of production versus the ones who are sticky in coverage. That’s especially true if a player has a history of not performing well, which Jones has.