Trayvon Mullen must turn the corner. He has no choice. Not with a new Las Vegas Raiders coaching staff in place that has no ties to the fourth-year cornerback. Gone are the front office personnel people who made the Clemson product the No. 40 overall pick in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Raiders have a new general manger in Dave Zielger. A new head coach in Josh McDaniels. And a new defensive coordinator in Patrick Graham. Fortunately for Mullen, the new regime is approaching the players with a clean-slate mentality.
The 24-year-old has the talent and a solid path in front of him to be — once more — a Raiders starting cornerback. Equipped with prototypical size at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds with the ideal arm length to boot, the Clemson product definitely passes the eye test. And his initial trio of seasons showed Mullen can be quite the nuisance to opposing offenses with his coverage ability in the short, intermediate and deep areas of the field.
Yet, his 2021 campaign was a forgettable one due to injury. Mullen hurt his foot against the Los Angeles Chargers after only six snaps in Week 4 (the Raiders eventually lost that tilt 28-14) and landed on injured reserve. Mullen did get activated off IR and returned in a Week 14 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. The corner logged 40 snaps in that game, had to cover speedster Tyreek Hill a number of times, before a toe injury again landed him on injured reserve, ending his season.
The corner must turn the corner. Now, with a new coaching staff and clean slate ahead of him, Mullen is eyeing a clean bill of health in an all-important 2022 campaign, the final year of his rookie contract.
“I like Trayvon,” McDaniels said at the NFL owners meeting. “I saw him the other day at the facility. I am excited. It’s a young group. They’re all talented, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. I think they’re all going to be eager to compete, and we’re going to let that happen and see how it all shakes out. I am really excited about that group.
“You look at that group and then the receiver group — ‘Make each other better. Go compete. Go guard Hunter (Renfrow) and Davante and Demarcus and Mack.’ They have to cover different kinds of guys, and the receivers have to get open against different skill sets at corner. They have to make each other better.”
And then, McDaniels provided the ultimate kicker and sticking point: “Go fight for a spot,” he ended.
Mullen is apt for a fight to earn his spot.
When Mullen is healthy and available, he’s a good cover corner. Before he went down with his initial foot injury last season, he was ranked the No. 19 cornerback by Pro Football Focus (PFF). According to Pro Football Reference (PFR) charting, Mullen was targeted 24 times last year allowing 15 receptions (62.5 percent) for 193 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Opposing quarterbacks throwing Mullen’s way sported an 84.2 rating. In 2020, PRF had Mullen getting target 87 times with 54 completions (62.1 percent). He allowed 620 yards and five touchdowns while picking off two passes. Opposing quarterbacks were rated 93.1 firing the pigskin his way. Mullen’s rookie season saw him picked on 68 times allowing 38 catches (55.9 percent) for 424 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Quarterbacks targeting him drew a 78.3 rating.
Again, a clean bill of health determines a lot of where Mullen will stand. The competition he faces for one of the perimeter cornerback gigs are Rock Ya-Sin (acquired via trade with the Indianapolis Colts), Anthony Averett (signed in free agency), Darius Phillips (also a free agent signing), and to an extent Nate Hobbs (who did well as the nickel/slot corner his rookie season last year and someone McDaniels noted Hobbs would get looks at other cornerback spots). Ya-Sin likely provides the stiffest competition due to starting snaps and experience with Indy (but health is an issue with him, too). Averett does provide a speed element no other cornerback on the Raiders current roster can match, however.
It’s a contract year for Mullen and another season to prove he’s a quality starting cornerback in the NFL. He’s got a lot to prove and can earn himself quality coin with an equally accomplished season — from the Raiders or another team.