While the status of some players is fuzzy, there seemed to be a pretty strong consensus – at least among fans – that one player most definitely wouldn’t be back. Shouldn’t be back. Ever.
And that player is, of course, Reggie Nelson.
Changes are coming…
Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is assembling quite a collection of coaching talent. While it may not be as awe-inspiring or ground shaking as a gathering of the Avengers, Gruden is putting together a staff that’s long on experience, cool heads, and steady hands. Which is, quite frankly, something this Raiders team needs after living through the nightmare that was Ken Norton Jr.’s defense (for far too long) and Todd Downing’s atrocious offense (for only one season, but truthfully, it was still far too long).
With Paul Guenther being tapped to run Gruden’s defense, Oakland is getting a play caller who comes in with a solid reputation as a man whose defenses in Cincinnati have fared pretty well overall.
In his four seasons as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator (2014-17), Guenther’s units ranked twelfth, second, eighth, and sixteenth in points allowed. Over those same four seasons, Oakland’s scoring defense ranked thirty-second, twenty-second, twentieth, and twentieth.
Which, if you’re scoring at home, would constitute a significant upgrade in terms of scoring defense, yes?
Guenther’s defenses have done a lot of things well – most notably, picking off the ball. And, if you watched the Raiders last season, you’ll recall that interceptions weren’t quite their thing. They finished the season with five total picks – dead last in the league. And they only raked up that gaudy total late in the season – well after Norton was handed his walking papers and John Pagano took over the defensive duties.
By contrast, in his four seasons running Cincinnati’s defense, Guenther’s unit ranked third (20), third (21), fourth (17), and after being ravaged by injuries last season, twentieth in the league with eleven total picks – which is still obviously, significantly higher than Oakland’s total.
Suffice to say, Guenther’s signature is his tough passing defense. They’re tough to score on in the air, ranking third, second, eleventh, and eighth in passing touchdowns allowed over the last four seasons, and they’re relatively stingy in terms of passing yards allowed. And oh yeah, as mentioned above, they’re ballhawks as well.
Meaning, Guenther’s passing defenses exist on basically, the opposite end of the spectrum as Oakland’s these last four seasons.
So, where are we going with this, you might ask? Even if you didn’t, we’ll answer that question for you anyway.
The Reggie Nelson Debate
After two seasons in Silver and Black, fans have seen enough of Nelson. Yeah, he made the Pro Bowl in 2016 on the strength of his five pick performance, but those interceptions were more of a matter of him being in the right place at the right time than him making a solid play on the ball.
More often than not, what we saw in Nelson was a thirty-something safety who was all too frequently out of position, taking bad angles to the ball, getting burned deep, and not having the speed to recover. Nelson was more of a liability than an asset in the defensive backfield.
Most would have preferred to see Nelson walk out the door before the 2017 season began, never to return. But, return he did and he put up an even worse year. All season long, Raider Nation was treated to the sight of Nelson getting beaten like the proverbial rented mule, play after play after play.
No, Nelson wasn’t the only thing wrong in Oakland’s secondary. But, he sure had a big hand in the team’s atrocious pass defense.
And yet now, with Nelson a free agent, there seems to be something of a groundswell advocating for Nelson’s return once more. A few articles have popped up here and there that don’t necessarily see Nelson returning to the Raiders as a bad thing.
The small groundswell of support, mind you, is simply because Guenther is now calling the defensive shots in Oakland. The belief seems to be that with Guenther in as the DC, he can somehow unlock Nelson’s abilities and turn him into the safety Oakland thought they were getting when they signed him – and not the dumpster fire in the defensive backfield he actually turned out to be.
The belief stems from the fact that Nelson played under Guenther for two seasons (2014-15) and was a pretty reliable safety for a pretty good overall defense. In two seasons working together, Nelson racked up twelve total interceptions, making the Pro Bowl in 2015 on the strength of his league-leading eight picks.
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You can’t deny or take away from Nelson the fact that under Guenther he was pretty solid at safety. No question. But, that was also three years ago and let’s just say that Nelson hasn’t aged particularly well.
No, Norton’s defensive schemes didn’t put Nelson in a great position to have a lot of success. Maybe Norton’s plays put him in a position where taking bad angles to the ball was inevitable. And no, Oakland’s garbage heap of a secondary didn’t do him any favors either.
But, neither of those things can alter the fact that at thirty-four years old – he’ll be thirty-five this year – Nelson does not have the speed or ability to keep up with receivers today. To say he lost a step would be generous. More realistically, he’s lost four or five.
Thanks But No Thanks
The idea that Guenther can come in and somehow fix everything wrong with Nelson is, quite frankly, preposterous. Guenther can’t wave a wand and magically make Nelson fast enough to keep up with the Brandin Cooks’ and Tyreek Hill’s of the world.
Yes, Guenther and Nelson worked well together. Nelson was respectable in his defenses. But, that was then and this is now. And the now of the situation shows that Nelson is what he appears to be – a thirty-four, almost thirty-five-year-old safety who simply isn’t fast enough to keep up with today’s receivers.
Oakland needs to get its house in order and one of the many starting points will be fixing a very broken pass defense. Rather than spend another year watching Nelson flail away on the field, struggling in vain to catch up with receivers who’ve blown by him, Oakland needs to move on from him.
If they want to improve one of the worst pass defenses in the league, they should start there. His contract is up, so let it be up. The secondary will be better for it. Call it addition by subtraction.