Is the ascension of Nate Hobbs among us? That’s a valid question and something to keep an eye on after the Las Vegas Raiders traded former starter Trayvon Mullen Jr. to cap a cornerback makeover in the desert.
Hobbs, a prized gem of a late-round draft pick (the 167th overall pick in 2021), blossomed into one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks coming out of Illinois last season. Expectations early on were Hobbs maintaining the fierce stranglehold he has on slot duties that were forged with an impressive rookie season. Yet, with a new regime in Las Vegas — general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels, chief among them — the supposition on Hobbs has increased — exponentially.
Let’s start with the cornerback room as a whole, first. With Mullen sent to the Arizona Cardinals, Rock Ya-Sin and Anthony Averett join Hobbs as cornerbacks with starting experience. Ya-Sin was acquired in a player-for-player trade (quite rare in the NFL) when Las Vegas sent pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue to the Indianapolis Colts, while Averett was signed as an unrestricted free agent.
The new trio is expected to start this season with Amik Robertson and Sam Webb in reserve, completing the cornerback makeover. Of that group, there’s one particular corner who provides the team something the other’s cannot — Averett. While he may be slight of build at 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds, Averett’s 4.36 speed is by far the fastest on the team. He has the jets to keep up with the fleet-footed receivers the Raiders will defend this season.
What About Hobbs
There were rumblings early McDaniels coaching staff wasn’t going to relegate Hobbs to merely the slot. Those rumors turned into reality in OTAs and training camp as the Raiders put more on Hobbs’ plate by giving him snaps both inside and out this offseason. This was done to make the 6-foot, 195-pound corner more versatile and, in turn, increase the Raiders’ return on investment in the 23-year-old.
Hobbs is no stranger to defending the boundaries on the perimeter. Before he manned the nickel/slot with the Raiders, he was primarily an outside corner in college. Which brings us back to the ascension angle. Hobbs is already a premiere inside corner, if he does well on the outside and has the ability to do both, are we looking at an ideal starter? I get it, that’s a rhetorical question considering nickel alignments and sub packages have become the “base defense” at this juncture of a pass-happy NFL, but still.
The term “ideal” plays off Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s penchant to ask his defenders to be flexible/multiple and excel in a variety of roles. Time will tell if Hobbs bounces around from the perimeter to inside. It could very well turn out he’s more valuable defending the slot receivers than he is on the boundary. But the Raiders are going to find out. Hobbs is game to do anything the coaching staff asks of him, though.
“You really just have to change your mindset. That’s what it is, when you’re inside you have to change your mindset, changes your rules, it changes what I do,” Hobbs said during his media session on Thursday. “I got to keep in line a little bit more. I have to know where shifts go, all of that stuff. At corner, it’s a little bit more, it takes a little bit more athleticism I would say to play corner. But it’s football so I think anytime you step out here in the NFL-level it has to be a certain level of focus.”
Likely a rotation that’s opponent dependent is on the horizon.
Slot Remains A Big Deal
The critical piece of the Hobbs’ puzzle is who shifts inside if the former is tasked with covering an outside receiver? Nickel duties remains a big deal and the concern the Raiders ability to defend the spot lessens if Hobbs isn’t manning that duty is quite valid.
Not only is coverage ability a must at that spot, but also the ability to not only avoid the noise of traffic in the area, but welcoming it all at the same time. Also, this is the most important aspect, the nickel corner must be a sure tackler. For reference, Pro Football Reference charted Hobbs with eight missed tackles on his total of 74 (9.8 percent) his rookie year.
Ya-Sin has experience defending the slot while Averett profiles as and has played more on the outside. Robertson, who has the build to be a nickel defender, is an option and so is Webb. Robertson, however, has struggled mightily with open-field tackling and that’s not something you want to see from your nickel defender.
I’ve written previously about the Big Nickel alignment — a sub package that puts a trio of safeties on the field — and we saw the Raiders deploy the grouping in preseason games. This particular personnel group is intriguing as one of the safeties lines up in the slot and when Las Vegas dabbled in it in preseason action, hard-hitting Johnathan Abram was dropped down.
Abram near the line of scrimmage allows the Raiders to take advantage of his frenetic energy and he has the tackling ability to be the slot enforcer, but seeing No. 24 lined up at slot would make for an enticing opportunity for both the opposing quarterback and slot receiver to take advantage of Abrams’ lack of cover skills.
On the flipside, Las Vegas could slide safety Duron Harmon or even Tre’Von Moehrig down in the slot to make the defense varied and less predictable.