There are a plethora of positions on the Oakland Raiders’ roster that will lead to intrigue and high expectations and cornerback is at the top of the list.
Opinions vary amongst fans on the quality of the cornerback group, but the coaching staff has remained consistently optimistic about the young trio on the roster. Gareon Conley has developed into a quality cover corner who did very well against most wide receivers and has adapted to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s trail technique well. Nick Nelson had ups and downs as a rookie especially as he learned the slot position, while Daryl Worley was very matchup dependent.
One important tendency to note regarding the Raider cornerback group and how it was used, Guenther seemed to always be looking to exploit certain matchups with each corner. As the defense began to take some shape, we saw Guenther mix and match his corners play to play in order to get the desired effect. This is a theme for many positions and reflects an organization philosophy geared towards exploiting individual matchups. No doubt this will play an important role as the front office and coaches determine what they want to do at the position.
Traditionally speaking, Guenther defenses have drafted cornerbacks early rather than spending free agent money at the position. Most likely this will mean the Raiders will not be looking for someone who will blow out the budget, but they do need to minimize the number of clear holes going into the draft. Cornerback is a position group that has some depth and there are some good fits.
Jason Verrett, LAR, 28
After starting his career with a bang as a rookie and then catapulting to stardom in year two, Verrett has only played 25 games in five seasons. The last two seasons have been cruel to Verrett and he has sustained back to back serious leg injuries including an ACL and a torn Achilles. In terms of his skill set, Verrett can play all three positions although he played mostly outside for the Chargers. He is short for an outside corner but similar to Conley he is feisty and knows how to locate and play the ball.
Versatility is a big part of his game and since the Raiders like to play matchups with their corner group he is a natural fit. Of course, assessing his injuries will be a big part of the decision to bring him in, but most likely he will go to a team on a low end prove it type deal. The downside to adding Verrett is he has very little special teams experience which is important for back end of the roster corners.
Justin Bethel, ATL, 29
It goes unmentioned most of the time, but the Arizona Cardinals have been churning out quality defensive backs for the last half of a decade. Bethel is another in a decent list of versatile hybrid defensive backs that came into the league as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent. After his first few years in the league, Bethel earned the starting cornerback spot across from Patrick Peterson. Before that, he played both outside corner spots and some safety. This leads one to assume he should be able to fit playing in all three primary corner spots.
Last season was not the best for Bethel. He played in fourteen games for the Falcons and was relatively quiet. What Bethel brings to the table is a versatile skill set and experience in complex coverage defenses that should help him adapt quickly to a scheme like Guenther’s. Fans should not look at Bethel as someone who will start immediately, but he is a seasoned vet that can be a valuable matchup piece during the season.
Bryce Callahan, CHI, 27
One of the most intriguing players in one of the most deceptive defenses in the NFL in recent years, Bryce Callahan has turned himself into a quality versatile defensive back. Whether it is man coverage, zone coverage, blitzing, or hitting, Callahan can do it all. Generally speaking, he does all of that from the slot as a hybrid cornerback/safety. He is not big, standing only 5’9 and weighing in around 190 pounds, but he definitely plays much bigger than that.
The primary issue for Callahan and the Raiders is his lack of versatility as a cornerback. As much as Guenther has mixed and matched his corners while he was in Cincinnati and now in Oakland, he has not used interchangeable corner/safeties much. Add to that the interest the Broncos will have with Vic Fangio as the head coach there and he could get easily overpaid.
Ronald Darby, PHI, 25
The most exciting name in free agency and the player who should garner the largest free agent contract is ex-Eagle and Bill, Ronald Darby. Over the last two years he has fought injuries and has only played 17 games, but he is a quality cornerback that cannot be overlooked. Exclusively an outside cornerback, Darby has shown the chops to play in most defenses and will garner huge interest across the NFL. The combination of age and talent at a premium position means he should be one of the first players with a contract in hand.
Similar to Callahan, Darby’s value to the Raiders is limited unless the Raiders are interested in having two clear starters at the outside cornerback spots that will play every down. The problem with that is it gives them two cornerbacks who have not shown any chops to play inside, and one corner that has not done slot corner since college. That is an of itself is not an issue, but it does seem that it is not the preferred path for Guenther. All things considered, the likelihood the Raiders sign Darby is minimal.
Bradley Roby, DEN, 27
79 games. In five years Bradley Roby has played in 79 regular season games. That means he has only missed one game in his entire five-year career. In that time, he was the third piece in a cornerback trio that was widely considered one of the best in the NFL. Once Talib left the Broncos, Roby went from the nickel slot cornerback who played spurts outside, to one of the starting outside cornerbacks. The season was not ideal for Roby and although he did not play poorly, it simply was not what Bronco fans had hoped for.
A move to a team like the Raiders who are able to pay well and are looking to exploit matchups and skill sets rather than leave guys isolated in positions they may not be best in would make a lot of sense for Roby. The market for Roby should be fairly active which means the Raiders may have to compete heavily for him, but he is likely to provide good value for an above average salary in terms of cost.
Darqueze Dennard, CIN, 27
When presented with the most ideal combination of talent, versatility, cost, and scheme fit, the best overall option for the Raiders at cornerback is Darqueze Dennard. Like Roby, Dennard was drafted in 2014 and eventually developed into a corner who played multiple positions. In five years Dennard played in 68 games but only started in 19. His most starts in a single season came last year with nine. What Dennard brings to the table is a background and comfort with a system that is built around playing matchups.
Obviously part of the appeal of Dennard is his familiarity with the scheme Paul Guenther has in place. This allows the Raiders to go into the season with four cornerbacks who already know all the techniques, the checks, and the audibles. Limiting the learning curve on the back end could significantly help the development of the cornerback room going into 2019. If the Raiders could add in a young quality pass rusher in the draft, then they could be cooking with gas.