Raiders Nate Hobbs and Tre'von Moehrig, Patrick Graham's defense

Raiders secondary destined for struggle? Let’s debunk that with player breakdowns, analytics, team fits, and comparisons to other secondaries

Raider Nation doesn’t see eye to eye much, but there is one thing that’s generally agreed upon: the state of the Las Vegas Raiders’ secondary – and not in a positive light. Fans and analysts alike both share the same worries when it comes to Sin City’s defensive backs. Patrick Graham hasn’t done much to combat these worries, either.

When looking at the team’s recent history, you start to understand the concerns around the unit. In both 2019 and 2020, the Raiders finished top-10 via total air yardage allowed. Things improved vastly under now-former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in 2021, but Bradley’s tenure with the Silver and Black came to an end after just one season. But this is all ancient history; let’s get to the more-relevant stuff.

Upon being introduced as Las Vegas’ next head coach, Josh McDaniels hired Patrick Graham to be the team’s new defensive coordinator. McDaniels was hoping Graham would pick up right where Bradley left off. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what happened. Under Graham, the Raiders allowed the fourth-most passing yards while totaling the least interceptions league-wide – not a good initial campaign.

Fans have no hopes for the team’s secondary, and analysts are right there with them. Sharp Football Analysis’ staff members noted which teams they thought would field the best secondaries in 2023, starting at one, and counting down to 32. The Raiders found themselves in the bottom-three of these rankings, and you’d be hard-pressed finding someone who would disagree with that..

..actually, you wouldn’t be. Because, as it just so happens, I disagree. From the cornerback unit to the safety room, I’m a firm believer that Las Vegas has some sensational talent rostered.

Not just the talent, but the cohesiveness needed to field a notable group of defensive backs.

If you’re looking for a claim with nothing whatsoever supporting it, this article isn’t for you. However, if you’re interested in a detailed breakdown composed of research, analytics, and information that took hours to gather, pull up a chair.

The Las Vegas Raiders, and their underappreciated group of defensive backs

The talent in this squad’s secondary cannot be ignored. Names such as Jakorian Bennett, Duke Shelley, and Marcus Epps won’t jump out at you, but their tape certainly will. Of course, having talent is one thing – meshing that talent together is a completely separate battle. Both Raider Nation and the Raiders themselves found this out the hard way in 2022, when the team boasted a Pro Bowl quarterback, running back, tight end, and pair of receivers, only to earn six victories throughout the entire year.

We’ll get into both the talent and fit with Patrick Graham; first, let’s start with the talent portion, beginning at the cornerback position and working our way to the guys who traditionally play deeper out.

Duke Shelley wasn’t good last year, nor was he great – He was ELITE

I’ve written a lot about Duke Shelley this offseason – actually, I was probably the first person who covers the Raiders to shower the 26-year-old in praise. When the numbers start dropping, you’ll understand why; and they’re about to drop, with authority.

Shelley, a former member of the Minnesota Vikings, started on a defense that allowed the second-most air yardage in 2022. That’s not a good thing.. or so you’d think. Despite the team’s struggles, Shelley was as good as it gets. That’s not over-exaggerating, either – Duke Shelley played as good as a cornerback can possibly play. With 288 coverage snaps last season, the former sixth-round pick earned the third-highest coverage grade (86.4) among all cornerbacks league-wide via Pro Football Focus.

The reason for this grade is simple: Shelley’s 48.9 allowed completion percentage ranked seventh-lowest among all players at his position. His 59.6 quarterback rating when targeted was 11th-lowest, and his total yards after catch surrendered was less than 75 yards. With 11 pass breakups, Shelley was able to notch the sixth-most among cornerbacks last season. If you format this number into a percentage, Shelley broke up passes 27% of the time he was targeted – more than one pass breakup for every four times tested. This percent tied with Sauce Gardner for highest in the entire National Football League, of any player at any position.

Want more? Shelley was responsible for one single penalty all season. For perspective, no corner on the Raiders’ roster who totaled at least 200 coverage snaps committed less than four. Beyond that, he missed a mere 3.4% of his tackles last season. This was the 17th-lowest missed tackle percentage in the NFL at his position.

Important note: These numbers only include players who tallied at least 100 coverage snaps in 2022.

Maryland cornerback Deonte Banks was selected in the first-round of last year’s draft, but Jakorian Bennett is statistically-superior

Banks and Bennett made up a sinfully unsung cornerback duo in Maryland. Banks, drafted 24th-overall to the New York Giants in April, had an outstanding ’22 campaign. As good as Banks was – and he certainly was good – Bennett was simply the better of the two.

Let’s compare some numbers.

Completion percentage allowed:
Banks: 43.3%
Bennett: 44.4%

Yards allowed:
Banks: 258
Bennett: 309

Banks: 1 (1 from ’21-’22)
Bennett: 2 (5 from ’21-’22)

Touchdowns allowed:
Banks: 4
Bennett: 0

Passer rating when targeted:
Banks: 71.4
Bennett: 47.5

Against the run, Banks earned a grade of 57.7 while Bennett enjoyed a much higher mark of 73.1. Jakorian did this while playing everywhere and anywhere on the field, including 70 more snaps than Banks on the inside, 30 more in the box, and an additional 13 deep safety snaps.

Bennett posted a ridiculous 4.30 40-time at the NFL Combine, and, although he stands 2″ shorter than Banks, he actually has longer arms than his Maryland counterpart.

If I’ve peaked your curiosity, you can find my much-more in-depth comparison, here.

Nate Hobbs, Tyler Hall, and David Long: the Raiders’ trio of exceptional slot corners

Collectively, Raider Nation wants Nate Hobbs to spend his ’23 campaign in the slot. In 2021, during Hobbs’ rookie season, the Illinois alum was the highest-graded corner league-wide when lined up inside (81.5). The following year, Patrick Graham came to town with dreams of Hobbs playing on the outside. The results were.. not ideal.

Hobbs surrendered a team-high (among CBs; minimum 200 coverage snaps) 72.7 completion percentage when targeted. His 108.1 quarterback rating allowed also stood as a team-high among those same guidelines.

Breaking up passes isn’t Hobbs’ game, so the completion percentage aspect isn’t surprising. Actually, it’s an improvement from his ’21 82.5% allowed. The big problem here is, Hobbs wasn’t able to showcase his toughness, which has proved to be his best asset.

Never doubt Hobbs’ toughness. The 24-year-old took a softball to the face in a charity game last week, and with blood on his face, Hobbs marched to the plate to take his at-bat.

Tyler Hall and David Long are slot experts themselves, with each achieving incredible feats in the role.

Earlier, I mentioned Duke Shelley was the third-highest graded cornerback last season among all corners with at least 100 coverage snaps. What I didn’t mention was Tyler Hall’s 86.3 grade – 0.1 behind Shelley’s 86.4 mark – ranked fourth-highest. Hall allowed just 50% of the passes his way to be completed, personally breaking up 22% of them; the sixth-largest percentage at his position.

Long was a major part of the Rams’ ’21 Super Bowl victory. No cornerback on the Rams’ roster had a better playoff campaign than the now-Raiders defensive back. Long’s coverage grade of 69.3 ranked first on the team throughout the postseason, and the 51.9 passer rating he was responsible for ranked second-lowest in the entirety of the playoffs. Casey Hayward, a member of the Silver and Black that year, was the only player to post a better number (39.6).

Brandon Facyson, Amik Robertson, and Sam Webb: Three familiar names

Facyson joined the Raiders this season via free agency, but it isn’t his first stint with the team. In 2021, when Gus Bradley was coaching for Las Vegas, Facyson came to Sin City to reunite with his defensive coordinator. When Bradley went to Indianapolis in 2022, Facyson once again followed suit. Now, with a two-year, $6.5 million contract, the 28-year-old is sporting the same iconic silver and black colors he did two seasons ago; this time under Patrick Graham.

Standing 6’2″, Facyson is currently the tallest cornerback on the Raiders’ roster. Last time Raider Nation saw him play for their team, Facyson allowed a career-low 59.2% of targets to be completed in large-part to his 10 pass breakups. Las Vegas needed height on the outside, and this was their answer.

Sam Webb came into the NFL last year as an undrafted free agent, forcing his way onto the initial 53-man roster and totaling 211 coverage snaps throughout the regular season. In coverage, Webb allowed a completion percentage of 66.7%, being credited by PFF for two pass breakups and one allowed touchdown. Webb was best against the run, where he earned a grade of 75.2; the 30th-highest among CBs in 2022.

While on the subject, two corners I’ve already mentioned also cracked the top-31 via grade against the run at their position. Tyler Hall ranked 19th (77.4), and Nate Hobbs earned the 31st-highest grade (75.1). Amik Robertson, another Raiders cornerback, posted the 35th-highest (74.5).

Robertson truly had a career-year in 2022, and it goes well beyond his impressive grade against the run. The 25-year-old logged career-lows in completion percentage (58.9%) and passer rating on balls his way (98.1), totaling a team-high six pass breakups. As a unit, the cornerbacks in Las Vegas notched two interceptions this past season. Robertson was responsible for both of them.

And finally, Marcus Peters

Peters and the Raiders have been a subject of discussion for years. Not only is Peters from the city of Oakland, where the Raiders played at during his childhood, but his cousin, Marshawn Lynch, played for the team in 2017 and 2018. Eight NFL seasons after being drafted, the pairing finally happened.

The signing of Marcus Peters is truly a win-win for Las Vegas.

A three-time All-Pro, Peters has admittedly been far from that form in his last two campaigns. An ACL tear kept the now-former Raven out of commission for the entirety of the 2021 season, and his returning ’22 campaign was nothing short of disappointing. With career-highs in completion percentage surrendered (70%) and quarterback rating when targeted (113.5), while simultaneously posting career-lows in pass breakups (2) and interceptions (1), 2022 is a year Peters would rather forget.

That doesn’t exactly portray how signing him is a win-win; if anything, it might seem as if I’m being critical of the move. But let me explain.

If Peters returns to the form that notched him three All-Pros, the win is obvious. If he doesn’t, there’s ample talent in the cornerback room already – I think I’ve covered that part well enough. However, while there’s ample talent, there isn’t exactly ample experience. Out of the eight cornerbacks I’ve named, not including Peters, only one has more than four NFL seasons under their belt. That one player, Brandon Facyson, has just five.

Peters, on the other hand, has eight full years of experience. He’s a veteran, he’s a winner, and he’s a leader; these are three things the Raiders’ cornerback room was in dire need of.

Onto Patrick Graham’s safeties.

Tre’von Moehrig? Yes, please

Many of Raider Nation think next-to-nothing of Moehrig, and I simply can’t understand why.

Moehrig was thought of as an exceptional safety prospect heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. With ball skills and awareness that were categorized as elite, teams were lining up to get a look at the TCU product. They got a look, alright – perhaps too good of a look. What they saw was tape on Moehrig’s back during his pre-draft workout. Scouts noticed the tape, and an MRI later revealed issues. A once sure-fired first-round selection ended up going at pick 43.

What happened next? Well, Moehrig played each and every defensive down for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021. With 1,152 total snaps, only four defensive players across the league took the field on more plays than the second-round safety. This wasn’t as impressive as his numbers, though.

With a coverage grade of 77.7, Moehrig sat 14th on the list of highest graded safeties in coverage. This was also the highest coverage grade on the team regardless of position. His 56.3 allowed completion percentage ranked 15th-lowest among safeties with at least 100 coverage snaps, and his 31% of forced incompletions ranked fifth-highest.

The one issue Raider Nation has with Tre’von Moehrig is his dropped interceptions. With three dropped picks in 2021, the first-year Raider was tied for most at his position. It’s easy to understand how that can be frustrating, but when you’re personally breaking up one of every three passes in your direction, so what? Moehrig could benefit from having more reliable hands, this is true, but does that mean fans should ignore how many times he’s forcing incompletions?

Absolutely not.

Moehrig was forced into the strong safety position in 2022, but with Marcus Epps now sporting a Raiders uniform, we can expect the 24-year-old to go back into a coverage-heavy role.

Welcome to Las Vegas, Marcus Epps

There’s two reasons why Moehrig returning to a coverage-heavy role is more than likely in the cards.

For one, the move to utility safety didn’t do him much good. Moehrig’s surrendered completion percentage jumped 16.2%, and his passer rating allowed went from 99.2 to 132.7. That impressive 31% of pass breakups also fell to 20%, and with four touchdowns surrendered (via PFF), no player on the Raiders’ roster was responsible for more scores in coverage. Patrick Graham took Moehrig out of his comfort zone, and it backfired.

For two, coverage isn’t Epps’ specialty like it was Harmon’s.

Epps has never held opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage under 76% in a single season. Meanwhile, Moehrig has never allowed a completion percentage north of 72.5%. This past season, PFF gave Epps a lowly coverage grade of 44.7, making him the fifth-worst graded safety in coverage among each and every safety to log at least 20 coverage snaps in 2022. Combine that with a 141.2 passer rating allowed, and this is not a player you want playing deep-coverage very often – with all due respect.

While not a coverage specialist, Epps is darn good against the run.

2021 and 2022 are the only seasons where Epps has totaled at least 500 snaps. In both of these seasons, the 27-year-old has notched a grade of at least 84.0 when defending runs. During his ’21 campaign, the now-former Eagle was the third-highest graded safety against the run. In 2022, he finished with the 10th-highest mark.

That’s exactly why Epps was a great pickup for Las Vegas. Opposing teams counted on running plays last season to continue drives against the Raiders, who finished top-10 in percentage of running plays against them that ended with a first down and touchdowns surrendered on the ground. Believe it or not, the Silver and Black didn’t finish top-10 in either of those categories through the air.

All-in-all, that means the team actually needed a run-specialist at safety more than they needed a coverage expert.

Epps is truly a fantastic fit with Patrick Graham and the Raiders, and he isn’t the only one

Although I’ve yet to make any section directly about fits, I’ve steadily been touching on how the pieces go together all the way through. Duke Shelley and Jakorian Bennett have ball-skills no team needs more than Las Vegas. In 2022, the Raiders were tied for last in interceptions. They also had the fourth-most total air yards against them. To combat this, they brought in a player who had the highest pass breakup percentage in 2022, and a prospect who has, arguably, the best ball skills in his entire draft class.

And, of course, the team signed Marcus Peters, who has notched at least one interception each year in the NFL.

Those are just the outside guys; as mentioned some time ago now, Las Vegas has a trio of exception slot cornerbacks. It doesn’t matter which of the three defensive coordinator Patrick Graham wants to start at nickel, nor does it matter which he wants as the dime-back. Heck, there’s even room for heavy rotations on the inside without sacrificing quality.

Moehrig is the safety who specializes in coverage. His counterpart, Marcus Epps, is the type of utility safety Patrick Graham tried to make Moehrig be in 2022.

This isn’t just a list of talented players – this is a list of puzzle pieces that perfectly align with each other.

The only real downside is the Raiders don’t have a reliable third safety at their disposal.

Unless, of course, you count Isaiah Pola-Mao, who the coaching staff and locker room can’t stop praising. If you don’t, perhaps back-to-back National Championship winner Chris Smith II can help ease your mind in that regard.

Smith earned an overall grade of at least 74.5 in each of his three seasons at Georgia. During his ’22 campaign, Smith held opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 58.8% and a passer rating of 50.0, while tallying three interceptions in the process.

Remember when we talked about needing run-stopping safeties? Smith earned a near-elite grade of 85.9 against the run.

How can I argue the Raiders won’t field a bottom-three secondary if I don’t compare them to other secondaries?

About a whopping 2,500 words ago, I noted Sharp Football Analysis’ staff had Las Vegas’ secondary in the bottom-three league-wide. Patrick Graham’s unit sits at 30, with only the Indianapolis Colts (31) and Los Angeles Rams (32) below them.

It’s not hard to see why the Colts are ranked below Las Vegas. In fact, it’s not something that should be argued. Former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore had a fantastic year in Indianapolis last season, but the team elected to trade him to Dallas this offseason. Isaiah Rodgers, Gilmore’s counterpart at cornerback, also had a great ’22 campaign. Both of these players earned coverage grades above 81.0 last season, being two of the only three defensive backs on the roster to receive a grade in coverage north of 61.0. Like Gilmore, Rodgers is also no longer with his ’22 club.

Indianapolis might’ve lost both of their starting [outside] corners, but the Rams lost all four starters in their secondary. Nick Scott, Taylor Rapp, Troy Hill and Jalen Ramsey totaled more than 700 defensive snaps individually. Ramsey, Scott, and Rapp logged the second, third, and fourth-most snaps among all defensive players for the Rams in 2022, respectively. Ouch.

It’s incredibly hard – almost impossible, actually – to imagine the Raiders’ defensive backs performing worse than either of the two aforementioned secondaries. The Sharp Football Analysis’ staff agrees; that’s where their endorsement ends, though.

More comparisons

At 29 and 28, the company has the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. These are the two teams responsible for the most first-downs allowed through the air last season, with each finishing in the bottom-10 for total air yardage surrendered. Neither of these secondaries have gotten better, either.

Duke Shelley and Patrick Peterson earned the two highest coverage grades among all players in the Vikings’ secondary last season. Now in 2023, neither of them are on the team’s roster. This was already a unit that allowed the second-most passing yardage last season, and lost their two best cornerbacks in the meantime; do you truly believe this unit will outshine Patrick Graham’s much-improved secondary?

Las Vegas placed above Minnesota in virtually every pass-coverage metric last season, and only improved their secondary this offseason while the other side took steps backwards.

Then, there’s Arizona, who allowed the lowest completion percentage league-wide in 2022 (69.8). This is another secondary that simply didn’t improve; in fact, it lost one of its key starters in Byron Murphy. This is one more team that doesn’t make sense being above the Raiders here.

By now you should be starting to get the picture. I’ll do one more comparison just to hammer it home, finalizing this segment by bringing in the 27th-ranked New York Giants’ secondary.

In 2022, the Giants fielded five defensive backs who earned a coverage grade of 70+ while totaling at least 100 coverage snaps: Landon Collins (79.6), Tony Jefferson (77.0), Julian Love (71.5), Adoree’ Jackson (71.5) and Cor’Dale Flott (70.7). Three of those players are no longer with the team. New York did add first-round pick Deonte Banks in this year’s draft, but the Jakorian Bennett comparison should nullify the would-be advantage Banks would otherwise give the Giants. All-in-all, this is another secondary that should be considered weaker than Patrick Grahams’.

This train has reached its last stop

If you’ve made it this far, go treat yourself to a nice meal – you deserve it.

I’ve sung a lot of praises of Las Vegas’ secondary. However, I want to make one thing clear: this is not a perfect unit. However, the team doesn’t get enough credit for the upgrades they’ve made. The same can be said about the talents they’ve assembled. It’s also true for the pieces they’ve made fit together perfectly.

Patrick Graham has an arsenal of defensive back weaponry he can deploy.

There’s fantastic outside corners, inside corners, coverage safeties, utility safeties, and sheer depth. With four cornerbacks who earned a top-35 grade against the run league-wide at their position, and a safety who’s posted a top-10 run grade in back-to-back seasons, the Raiders’ secondary is prepared to handle opposing ground attacks. Thanks to the addition of Marcus Peters, there’s leadership in the unit.

Many strengths, few flaws, lots of promise; the Las Vegas Raiders 2023 secondary.

*Top Photo: Raiders official site

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