Josh McDaniels knows the game of football is an ever-evolving venture. The Las Vegas Raiders head coach spoke candidly to the media on Monday during the opening day of the NFL owners meeting in Florida. And one of the topics he touched upon his roster versatility.
Namely, the McDaniels said, you can’t have one-position players. While he was speaking specifically about the offensive line when he made that comment, his words certainly have a ripple effect on other position groups on the Raiders roster.
Case in point: Nate Hobbs, who enters his second year after an impressive rookie season manning Vegas’ nickel cornerback role.
“There’ll be an opportunity for Nate to compete at all those spots,” McDaniels said when asked if Hobbs would strictly the slot cornerback again this coming season. “We’ve talked about that already and Nate’s a very competitive guy got a good skill set we’re excited to work with him for sure.”
The Raiders aren’t going to pigeon hole their talented young corner to the slot/nickel role and that’s a fortuitous turn of events for Hobbs. Cross training at both interior and perimeter cornerback spots may sound like too much, but having the second-year defensive back move around and get work all over the field helps maximize the Vegas’ return on investment.
Hobbs played on the perimeter and inside during his college career and learned the pro-style defense from then-Illinois head coach (now Houston Texans head coach) Lovie Smith. Hobbs was immersed and shined in Smith’s Cover 2, Cover 3 and man concepts and growing in that system helped Hobbs make the transition to the NFL game.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Hobbs was a gem of a fifth-round pick in last year’s NFL draft and hit the ground running for the Raiders. He arrived as a sure-tackling physical cornerback from Illinois and claimed the slot/nickel role from the get-go. And he didn’t relinquish the gig play in all 16 games (76 percent of the defensive snaps — 837; 38 percent of special teams snaps — 171) with nine starts. He played the difficult role of not only covering wide receivers in the slot his rookie year, but getting dirty in run support as he finished with 74 total tackles, three stops for loss, one sack, four quarterback hits, one interception, three passes defensed, and one forced fumble. He showed as a well-rounded cornerback his rookie season.
According to Pro Football Reference, Hobbs was targeted 62 times in coverage allowing 51 receptions (82.3 percent completion rate) for 399 yards and a touchdown. Quarterbacks throwing at Hobbs sported a 92.1 rating.
The completion percentage is high, but for good reason. As the nickel corner, Hobbs duty was to keep plays in front of him, make the tackle, and limit the damage. The 7.8 yards per reception were a testament to that, as well as the 51 solo tackles and 23 assists on tackles (Pro Football Reference charted Hobbs with eight missed tackles), showing his willingness to get his nose dirty in run support.
If the eye test doesn’t tickle your fancy, the performance earned Hobbs high Pro Football Focus (PFF) marks as he finished the highest-graded rookie cornerback and being named to the PFF All-Rookie Team.
“Hobbs doesn’t have gaudy interception or pass breakup numbers because much of his job in the slot was coming up and limiting damage on plays in front of him. He did that well, allowing just 0.7 yards per coverage snap, seventh among cornerbacks with at least 250 snaps,” PFF noted about Hobbs. “Hobbs paired that play in coverage with a 78.8 PFF run-defense grade in 2021 that ranked 11th at the position.”
Giving Hobbs a chance to compete at the outside corner spots helps the talented defensive back to become an even more well-rounded Raider. Especially with a lot of things remaining unsettled at the cornerback position in Las Vegas. Trayvon Mullen Jr. is an incumbent that has shown flashes as a starting outside corner but injuries derailed his 2021 campaign. The Raiders also traded for Rock Ya-Sin (Indianapolis Colts). He’s a capable perimeter corner but the injury bug has bitten him, too. The two starting corners the Raiders fielded — Casey Hayward Jr. and Brandon Facyson — both signed with other teams in free agency. So snaps are there to be had by players willing to work hard and snag starting spots.
While the nickel/slot may be Hobbs’ best position, being a moveable matchup chess piece in Patrick Graham’s defense means even more snaps for the 22-year-old. Not only that, but Hobbs’ development as a versatile cornerback who can bounce inside and outside helps offset any potential injuries that may come as the 2022 prep and season wear on. Las Vegas’ depth at cornerback was supremely tested last season due to injury necessitating the team sign Facyson off the Los Angeles Chargers practice squad and veteran Desmond Trufant in October of last season.
Of course, Hobbs will need to show the same intelligence on the field, off it. Hobbs was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence this past January. He was found to be under the legal limit and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge — careless driving — later that month.
Hobbs simply has too much talent and is a young and ascending asset for the Raiders defense to miss due to off-field incidents. He had a history of breaking team rules at Illinois, but the Raiders are hoping that’s all past him as he embarks on Year 2 as a Raider.