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Raiders preseason: A defensive back shuffle

Las Vegas gets cornerbacks back at practice while trading away a safety; a look at potential alignments going forward

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders
Cornerback Trayvon Mullen returned to Raiders practice on Wednesday. His arrival to training camp and participation will help bolster the corner group.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Now things will get very interesting for the Las Vegas Raiders defensive backfield. Namely defensive backs/passing game coordinator Jason Simmons and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.

In a matter of two days, the Silver & Black shuffled the defensive back deck with the return of two veteran cornerbacks and trading away a young safety. At corner, Trayvon Mullen returned to practice after a stint on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list on Wednesday. Had he not returned by Aug. 23, he would’ve missed the first four games of the regular season. Mullen hit the practice field and the brief window showed he’s recovered from offseason foot surgery.

Fellow veteran cornerback Rock Ya-Sin also returned to practice after missing sessions. He showed very well in coverage during training camp before missing an extended period of time. Having both Mullen and Ya-Sin back in the fold and practicing affords the Raiders to intensify the competition in the cornerback room that has 10 players vying for spots. Along with Mullen and Ya-Sin, the group is comprised of Anthony Averrett, Nate Hobbs, Darius Phillips, Amik Robertson, Chris Jones, Bryce Cosby, Sam Webb, and Isiah Brown. The Raiders may keep five or six cornerbacks come the regular season.

Time will tell if Mullen and Ya-Sin see any preseason action in the Raiders’ remaining two exhibition tilts against the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. However, their return bolds well for Week 1 availability for the regular season.

Flip it to safety and the trade of hard-hitting young safety Tyree Gillespie to the Tennessee Titans opens up a potential spot for someone to seize. The trio of Tre’Von Moehrig, Johnathan Abram and Duron Harmon appear to be roster locks based on preseason usage and how coaches speak about each during media sessions. That leaves the group of veterans Matthias Farley and Roderic Teamer, along with youngsters Qwynnterrio Cole and Isaiah Pola-Mao duking it out for a reserve role at the position. That’s seven safeties vying for spots on a team that may keep only four or five when the final 53-man roster is settled.

Expect more roster thinning to occur next week as team’s must go from the 85-man to the 80-man limit by Aug. 23.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Cornerback Nate Hobbs, left, is a player head coach Josh McDaniels, right, and his coaching staff is deploying at different spots to take advantage of skillset.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Potential Alignments

Having a full compliment of defensive backs is a boon for both Simmons and Graham. It’ll allow both coaches to see where everyone is at mentally and physically and do more mix & match with alignments.

Through two preseason games thus far, the Raiders deployed a mesh of cornerbacks due to the availability. Like I mentioned above, it’s unclear if Mullen or Ya-Sin will hit the field in the remaining two clashes, however, their availability does give Las Vegas the opportunity to experiment with defensive backs in different spots.

The Raiders coaching staff is big on versatility and putting players in different spots to learn multiple positions and responsibilities. A prime example of this in the defensive backfield is Hobbs getting work on the perimeter along with his usual slot/nickel cornerback spot. Ditto for Robertson and other corners. At safety, we saw glimpses of a potential regular-season nickel alignment where Moehrig and Harmon lined up deep at the two safety spots and Abram played much closer to the box and was in essence, lined up at linebacker. More on that below.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Cornerback Nate Hobbs, left, is a player head coach Josh McDaniels, right, and his coaching staff is deploying at different spots to take advantage of skillset.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Going forward, Simmons and Graham could dabble with Hobbs defending out on the boundary with Ya-Sin or Mullen on the outside too, or one of the three (or any other cornerback for that matter) inside defending the slot in nickel sets. The potential combinations are endless, all in an effort to maximize the team’s return on investment on the players and, more importantly, to confuse the opposing offenses with alignments.

Big Nickel

Three safeties on the field at the same time? That particular alignment not only takes advantage of what Abram does best — a run-and-hit hunter-killer aggressive hit man — but is reminiscent of the New England Patriots’ ‘Big Nickel’ formation that deployed three safeties on the field. The Pats’ sub package saw four defensive linemen, three safeties, two cornerbacks and two linebackers on the field. And it’s a scheme Graham and head coach Josh McDaniels know all too well during their respective stints in New England.

Abram near the line of scrimmage also allows the Raiders to take advantage of his blitzing ability. His frenetic energy and speed can cause fits and force the opposing offense to adjust their protections to account for the heat-seeking missile that is No. 24.

One aspect that was a apparent in the Patriots’ usage of the Big Nickel — beyond coverage — was tackling ability. Each defensive back on the field must be a sure-tackler.

It’s going to be interesting if we see more of the sub package from Las Vegas moving forward.