While the Las Vegas Raiders base defense — whether it’s a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment — remains a topic of conversation as the team embarks on OTAs, the truth of the matter is the nickel formation is where NFL defense’s spend most of their time, nowadays.
Defending the aerial theatrics that NFL offenses have become makes that a necessity. Teams are deploying five defensive backs — a trio of cornerbacks and two safeties is the norm — to combat the firepower they’re tasked at quelling or disrupting. And Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has no qualms telling you straight up.
“The game is sub-defense. Period, point blank,” Graham staunchly said at his introductory press conference back in March. “Whether it’s 11-personnel that we’re seeing from teams or the 12-personnel that plays like 11-personnel and the way we combat that a lot of time is playing sub-defense. So, when I say sub-defense, now you’re getting into the 4-2-5 world of it. Whatever the spacing is – four-down, five-down, three-down – however the spacing is, you’re really dealing in a world of five DB’s on the field at once. And four bigger bodies with two linebackers.
“So, to me the 4-3/3-4 discussions is almost like it’s antiquated, to be honest with you. What you’re talking about sub-defense do you have guys that can rush the passer? Yes. Do you have guys that can stop the run? Yes. Do you have guys that can cover, that have shown they can cover in the past? Yes. So, those are the three major things I’m looking for aside from tackling, so, yeah, I’m good with that.”
And that’s exactly why Nate Hobbs’ continued development as the Raiders nickel/slot cornerback (and a defensive back as a whole) is vital. Don’t expect the second-year defender to lose his status as the starting Raiders slot corner this coming season after proving himself to be a gem of a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Yet, the approach that served Hobbs so well last offseason is the same mindset he’s got heading into Year 2.
“It definitely feels a little different,” Hobbs said of this year’s offseason compared to his rookie season. “I’ve got a little more experience, but I feel like honestly, for me, it’s the same dynamic because we’ve got a new staff, new players, and obviously a new defense.
“So I’m trying to prove myself again, as we all are out there, so I just try to take the same approach ... and go hard every day.”
Going hard everyday served Hobbs very well when he burst onto the scene as a non-descript neophyte last offseason. Despite spending the majority of his collegiate career at as an outside cornerback, he took to the slot duties like a duck in water and quickly asserted himself as the man to beat for the slot corner role and never relinquished it.
Racking up 74 total tackles, one sack, one interception, three passes defensed (deflections) and one forced fumble, Hobbs was an unquestioned contributor to the raiders defense last season. He played in all but one regular season game (16) and notched nine starts (which is a relative term when it comes to nickel corners). During the regular season he played 837 snaps on defense (76 percent of the Raiders total defensive snaps) and in the Vegas’ playoff appearance, Hobbs rarely left the field accounting for 92 percent of the team’s snaps on defense with 57 and finished with eight total tackles and one pass defensed.
That rookie-year performance garnered plenty of attention, including Hobbs landing in the top 10 of Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) 2022 NFL slot cornerback rankings.
“The former fifth-round pick came from Illinois, where he played over 2,100 snaps on the outside compared to just 155 in the slot,” wrote Anthony Treash, PFF lead college analyst regarding Hobbs. “But after impressing in the slot during camp, he was given the starting job and went on to lead the NFL in coverage grade for the 2021 season. The Raider brings explosiveness and aggressive play to the field and has been productive as a blitzer — he produced nine pressures on 20 rushes last year.”
Despite the curious position designation on the Raiders initial roster release — Hobbs was pegged as a safety but that turned out to be a typo by the team — Hobbs is keeping an open-mind approach with the new coaching staff brought in by head coach Josh McDaniels. Out went Cover 3 truther Gus Bradley and in comes Patrick Graham, dubbed “Black Picasso” by his players due to coach’s creativity and innovation as not only a play caller, but more importantly as a teacher.
“Right now I play DB,” Hobbs said. “I play whatever the coaches want me to play, honestly. I just feel like I’ve got to be that flex guy, like I can do whatever they ask me to. So that’s where my mind is.”
Being versatile and willing to mix it up both inside and outside should serve Hobbs quite nicely, especially considering the hierarchy at the perimeter corner spots is far from decided. Incumbent Trayvon Mullen was expected to compete for a starting spot on the outside, however, he had offseason surgery on his foot. In early OTAs, the newly acquired pair of Rock Ya-Sin (via trade with the Indianapolis Colts) and Anthony Averrett (free agent from the Baltimore Ravens) have gotten looks at the perimeter spots. Hobbs, of course, is nestled in the slot.
As mentioned earlier, Hobbs spent most of his time at Illinois on the boundaries covering receivers before adapting and assimilating to covering pass catchers in the muck that’s the interior-middle of the field and beyond. There’s a lot of traffic crossing the field from the slot, not to mention some routes have Hobbs defending slot receivers on the boundary, anyhow.
But at 6-foot and 195 pounds with 4.48 40-yard dash timed speed (at Illinois’ pro day), Hobbs has the requisite size and speed to hang both inside and outside. He’s also armed with scheme versatility operating out of the Cover 3 and press-man techniques at Illinois and doing similar in his first year with the Raiders.
While Hobbs needs to continue to hone his craft, he still has an unenviable task slot corners have the difficult task of covering very smart route runners who create separation and are often called to keep plays in front of them and not give up a big one. Hence the completion percentage of 82.3 percent he gave up, according to Pro Football Reference. While he only yielded 81 air yards, he was charted as giving up 318 yards after the catch (YAC).
Still, he’s got the tackling ability and instincts to be a mainstay nickel defender. He just has stay on the field and be available and avoid the off-field incidents — he was arrested on DUI charges back in January (dropped after he plead guilty to careless driving) and was cited for speeding the following month.
“My whole life, I’ve been dealing with things,” Hobbs said. “I feel like life is a test. No matter if it’s good or if it’s bad, I feel like it’s never as bad as you think and it’s never as good as you think, so stay level-headed in the midst of everything. And stay disciplined and keep your spirit up and I feel like everything is going to work itself out. And then relying on God, the Lord, Jesus Christ.”