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Raiders 2023 preview: Playing to Nate Hobbs’ strength

Placing talented cornerback primarily in the slot gives him best possible position to succeed

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Cornerback Nate Hobbs, left, developed into a reliable defender in the Las Vegas Raiders secondary.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Not many players can thrive when asked to do something completely new. Especially when that task comes with the transition from the collegiate to professional landscape.

Nate Hobbs is an exception to that.

After being a perimeter cornerback in college and defending the outside, the Las Vegas Raiders thrust Hobbs into the slot corner role in nickel alignments as a rookie in 2021. The Illinois product didn’t flounder despite doing something he wasn’t asked to do much in college.

Hobbs excelled playing in all 16 games allowing only one touchdown and 399 yards in coverage. While he did allow an 82.3 percent completion rate (51 completions on 62 targets) with opposing quarterbacks sporting a rating of 92.1 targeting Hobbs. The air yards he surrendered was a cool low 81 yards and Hobbs also made timely tackles to limit the yards after catch (YAC) playing competing in the ultra-tough slot corner duties where receivers tend to showcase more short-area burst to get open. Because of this, Hobbs stamped himself as a fifth-round gem of a find for the Raiders.

Looking to build on Hobbs’ Year 1 success, Las Vegas put more on the talented cornerback’s plate in 2022 by adding boundary duties along with snaps in the slot. The results were mixed as a hand injury affected Hobbs’ effectiveness and compounded matters. In total, the 6-foot, 195-pound corner played in (and started) 11 games for Las Vegas last season allowing a lower completion percentage at 75.3 percent (58 completions on 77 targets) but more total yards at 622 and five touchdowns. His air yards allowed ballooned to 389 with YAC lowering to 233.

With the Raiders seeking to establish a more explosive and disruptive identity on defense, Hobbs enters a pivotal Year 3. Arguably the most talented Raiders corner on the roster, it may be time to allow Hobbs to return to where he flourished — the slot.

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills
The Las Vegas Raiders potentially landed a steal of a free agent by signing cornerback Duke Shelley. A fiery competitor that allowed only 45.7 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed, he can come in and compete for a starting outside corner role right away.
Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images

“Obviously, Nate battled a bunch of injuries and all that, so that was part of it,” Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels said when asked of Hobbs after OTAs last week. “But I think anytime a young player goes through a system philosophy change, certain types of things change for them. And so, as much as you want a rookie to kind of grow from (year) one to two, if there’s a lot of things that change from their day-to-day from what they were doing as rookies, sometimes that bump happens from (year) two to three. That’s just reality.”

The Las Vegas coaching staff does prefer it’s players being versatile and playing multiple positions. And there isn’t any indication yet if the team will have Hobbs play both inside and out.

Las Vegas also added more competition to the cornerback room by signing free agents Brandon Facyson, Duke Shelley, and David Long Jr. The team also drafted Maryland’s Jakorian Bennett with the No. 104 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Not to mention incumbents Amik Robertson, Sam Webb and Tyler Hall. Of that group, Facyson is the oldest at 28 with others 26 and under and each has the ability and potential to be outside corners for the Silver & Black. The kicker here is, of that group above, no one can bring the level of effort and production nickel/slot corner role like what Hobbs’ offers.

Hobbs solidifies the nickel corner role, one that is only increasing in importance as NFL offenses trot out multiple receivers and formations making the sub package nickel alignment basically a defense’s base formation in an attempt to counter. He’s got the awareness, physicality, size, speed, and tackling ability to handle the challenging task of being in the slot. And while maximizing the return on investment by having him versatile to bounce from slot to the boundary is a nice-to-have, catering to Hobbs’ strength puts him in the best possible position to succeed.

In Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) cornerback ranking of the Top 32 ahead of the 2023 NFL season, Hobbs lands 28th on the list. The Raider is sandwiched in between the Cleveland Browns’ Greg Newsome II and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Carlton Davis.

“Hobbs suffered a major drop in play in 2022 and may be a cornerback trapped in the wrong scheme and position as things currently stand, but we saw from his rookie season how good he can be covering the slot in the right system,” PFFs Sam Monson wrote. “That year, he recorded an 80.1 PFF grade and allowed just one touchdown all season. It may be difficult for Hobbs to bounce back, given his current role, but he belongs on the list despite those circumstances.”

That “current role” is going to be cemented this offseason heading into the regular season. Las Vegas would be wise not to roll the dice on shuffling Hobbs to and fro, and allowing him to eat in the slot where he earned PFF all-rookie team status in 2021.