It was only a short year ago when cornerback Sean Smith was a celebrated free-agent acquisition made by Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.
During the 2016 offseason, the Raiders had to address the cornerback position seriously. Former first round pick D.J. Hayden had his pending fate sealed with the team amidst struggles at cornerback. Sean Smith was seemingly the answer by adding a physical corner; while Hayden would play out his rookie deal and inevitably not have his services retained. Now we are barely into the official start of Smith’s second season, and he is arguably the worst pure cover corner on the roster.
Sean Smith in 2016
Take a look back Smith’s very first start as a Raider which led to a benching. Yes, that is right. A freshly signed veteran corner getting paid top-tier positional money was struggling so bad that the staff benched him; not a good look at all. After being cooked by New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the prevailing sentiment at the time was a blend of various excuses.
The most prevalent of these excuses was that either the failed scheme of Ken Norton Jr. was to blame, or the coverage assignment deployment was not favoring Smith’s skill set. Looking back, Raider Nation was trying to be temporarily cautious about Smith facing a lethal offense on the road. The smaller receivers in Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks were seen as bad matchups for Smith’s style of play at the line of scrimmage. Then came week two.
The Atlanta Falcons were bringing the bigger wide receivers to Oakland; assumed favorable to Smith. The long-legged Julio Jones had his way with Smith; humiliating him on a simple stutter move to an inside slant for a second quarter touchdown. Smith had given up on the play pulling-out of his sprint of as soon as Julio caught the ball. Then in the fourth quarter, Smith drew Julio Jones again, while lining up about 12-15 yards pre-snap Julio blew right by him on a deep post route. Smith was playing catch-up trailing the big reception of 46 yards down to the 9-yard line of the Raiders.
Only a few plays later the embarrassment continued as Smith was trailing a crossing route in man coverage vs. Justin Hardy. On the backside of the play, a deflection popped the ball into the air and Smith was unable to make up the ground on his assignment, Hardy high-pointed the deflected ball for an easy touchdown. Another sad day for Smith at the office, just two games into his Raider tenure.
It was a continuing issue throughout the season, in Week 12 Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin took Smith for a walk down the sideline in Oakland. Benjamin shed Smith’s attempt at jamming him at the line of scrimmage, getting easy separation to free his release. Smith was trailing the play, and the ball was slightly underthrown, Benjamin still had an easy time using his body to get the reception over an aimlessly frantic Smith, who was falling to the ground. Not a good look for a cornerback whose reputation was for physicality.
In all fairness the Raiders defense as a whole was historically bad, surrendering the most yards in a two-game stretch in NFL history. Smith obviously had better performances, as did the defensive unit as a group but he still put out his worst career effort. Statistically, Smith had the 2nd least amount of tackles, and 3rd least passes defended of his career. Vital being that his second worst season output was the year prior for rival Kansas City. Never a good sign at 30 years old in the NFL to show back to back seasons of decline.
The off-season could not have come sooner for Smith to put a poor 2016 behind him. Smith missed two games due to a shoulder injury, that required his first career surgery in January right after the seasons close.
“I’m healthy. My shoulder is better, I’m just having fun. Last year is last year. That year doesn’t define me — not one bit. My game speaks for itself. I’ve put it all behind me. I’m going to have fun, move forward.” – Sean Smith
Fresh into camp the cornerback position had some immediate urgency to improve. New assistant head coach John Pagano brought a new eye to the second level defense that certainly needed revision both positional and schematically. While new rookie draftees Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu have been spending time sidelined for different injury reasons, the returning core was set-up to see a high snap count.
Early rumblings from camp surrounded returning cornerback T.J. Carrie and an unknown UDFA in Breon Borders working with the first team defense. Sean Smith was floating around the camp depth chart in drills as deep as the 3rd team defense at times. Smith was also used to guard tight ends in other situational packages and drills. It’s just camp, right?
That’s what Raider Nation had hoped by counting on a “bounce back” year from Smith. Many scoffed at the reports as just motivational camp movements coaches employ to inspire the young additions and to keep the veterans hungry. The unofficial depth chart was released, securing Smith as a 1st team starter. Take that for what it’s unofficially worth.
Pre-Season Week One: Raiders vs Cardinals
It did not take long for Smith to see a target in coverage, on the second play he was called for pass interference,
That would not be his last flag of the night in coverage; in his second target, Smith was flagged, again. The flag was a bit of a self-imposed prevent defense if you will, preventing himself from being embarrassed as he was beaten. Smith later gave up two easy completions. The staff did not “stop the bleeding” and left him in the game to get more playing time. Not the most reassuring sign of the staff’s confidence during a Week 1 preseason game, his night would’ve ended much earlier.
Late in the 2nd quarter, Smith was one of the few starters on the field, playing with and against the likes of 2nd and 3rd string team prospects. Then Smith was shaken badly by a double move in the red-zone. The pass fell incomplete due to a touch throw that luckily was equally as bad as Smith’s coverage. The wide receiver was Chris Hubert a 2016 UDFA out of Fayetteville State, who spent over a year on and off the Cardinals practice squad. Not a good look for Smith and a nightmare of a night trying to dispel last seasons struggles.
What’s to come …
The lack of a proven player at corner is Smith’s best protector right now. Not a single corner stood out in the first preseason matchup, and that does not bode well for the whole group, let alone Smith.
He’s also locked-in contractually at over 9 million guaranteed giving the Raiders zero monetary gain from possibly cutting him. As far as 2017, Smith might just be safe, and until Conley gets to camp or others take the next step, he shall remain part of the 53 man roster.
Seeing how the staff has been working Smith against tight ends and lining him up all over the field, this suggests the team wants to find some value for him if he is retained. Unfortunately, free-agency can be just as hit or miss as the draft and Smith looks like a major miss at a critical position of need. From what I have seen Smith is done as a player, but not yet as Raider.