One question that will get sorted out during the Las Vegas Raiders training camp is how the Raiders plan to use cornerback Nate Hobbs.
As a rookie, Hobbs shined covering the slot in the nickel role under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. However, with the Raiders overhauling their coaching staff before last season, including bringing in a new play-caller on defense in Patrick Graham, the majority of the 2021 fifth-round pick’s reps came on the outside as a wide corner last year.
He also notably struggled in that role a year ago, leading to questions on how Graham and Las Vegas’ coaching staff will opt to use him in 2023.
According to reports, Hobbs has been taking more reps over the slot so far in camp, and he was asked if that’s a spot where he feels really comfortable.
“Yeah, I’m comfortable there,” the cornerback replied. “I get to open my vision, see the field, use my instincts. But honestly, I’m ready to go wherever I need to – corner, nickel, it doesn’t really matter, I just want to help the team.”
Hobbs’ flexibility and willingness to play either position certainly gives the Raiders plenty of options for the layout of their secondary, but where is he the most productive; covering the slot or out wide?
Using statistics derived from Pro Football Focus, let’s dive into the numbers and find out!
Primarily due to suffering an injury last season that kept him out of six games, the Illinois product has lined up as a nickel for a little more than 100 coverage snaps than in the boundary during his two NFL seasons—547 snaps to 437. So, we’ll primarily focus on his efficiency metrics from both alignments.
There are two areas where Hobbs has better numbers as a wide corner compared to the slot; completion percentage and yards after the catch (YAC) per reception allowed. The former is a marginal difference of about one percent, but the latter is significant as he’s surrendered 6.83 YAC per catch covering the slot to 4.60 out wide.
However, this is where statistics can be deceiving and some context on scheme or actual football play needs to be applied.
When throwing to inside receivers, offenses typically design shorter routes or even screens to get the ball in the wideout’s hands quickly and let him work after the catch. In response, defenses are often willing to give up completions and have their defenders rally to the ball and make an open-field tackle for a short gain.
Staying deep in coverage and allowing catches means receivers can pick up say three to four yards with the ball in their hands and the defense is okay with that.
The defense doesn’t get that luxury when the ball goes to an outside receiver though as those passes are typically thrown down the field, so the defensive back has to prevent the completion to prevent the big gain.
If the ball is caught, the wideout typically isn’t in a position to tack on yards after the catch because the defensive back, if he’s doing his job correctly, should be right there to make the tackle because he’s staying close to his man instead of playing deep.
For example, Hobbs has still given up more yards per completion as a wide corner compared to when he plays nickel—11.1 to 9.4—despite yielding a higher YAC per catch rate, and the other metrics share a similar story to this one.
When targeted in the slot, the second-year pro has allowed a passer rating of 101.0 compared to 108.1 in the boundary. He’s been targeted at roughly the same rate from both alignments—8.4 coverage snaps per target out wide to 8.0 as a nickel—but surrenders fewer yards per coverage snap in the slot; 0.91 to 1.01.
Part of that is due to giving up a slightly lower rate of receptions the closer he is to the center with a career rate of 10.3 reps in coverage per completion as a slot corner and 10.9 as a wide corner.
So, it’s pretty clear that Hobbs, statistically, is much better at covering on than he is out wide and should go back to that role this season. However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that his numbers as a nickel were dramatically worse last season.
The sample sizes between the two years are too different to put a ton of weight into this— 469 slot snaps in 2021 compared to just 78 in 2022—but the numbers are at least worth taking a look at. Hobb’s passer rating when targeted went up by over 17 points, his yards per coverage snap increased by 1.12 yards, and he allowed receptions more frequently; 11.2 coverage snaps per catch to 7.1.
Now, the questions pivot to how much did Hobbs’ injuries play a factor in that regression, did opponents figure out how to attack him, or is he just not a good scheme fit in Graham’s system?
It would behoove the Raiders to find those answers quickly, so hopefully, Hobbs bounces back in training camp and returns to form as a future building block of the defense.