The real black hole: Why can’t the Raiders find a decent pair of corners?
With their first major transaction as the newly minted Las Vegas Raiders in January 2020, the Silver & Black signed cornerback Nevin Lawson to a one-year contract extension.
Lawson, who was coming off a one-year free agent contract, played in 11 games with five starts for the Raiders in 2019 — after missing the first four games due to a failed drug test.
He’ll actually start his second season with the Raiders on the suspended list, too, earning a one-game ban for a dangerous hit in the 2019 season finale.
Nevertheless, Lawson, a starter at corner in four of his five years with the Detroit Lions, might get another crack at locking down a starting spot for the Raiders in 2020 — even though he is still looking for his first career interception after 74 career games.
If he does hold down a starting spot in Vegas, maybe he can finally help the Raiders solve a problem that has plagued them for the better part of a decade — finding a legitimate pair of starting cornerbacks.
Let’s be honest: The Raider Nation can only shake its collective head at how far a team has fallen that once boasted defensive backfields like the “Soul Patrol” of the 1970s and the Super Bowl-winning pair of Haynes and Hayes (as in Hall of Famer Mike and should-be Hall of Famer Lester).
Even in the 21st century, players like Charles Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha struck fear into the hearts of opposing wide receivers when they lined up in the Silver & Black’s famed man-to-man coverage.
But, by the time the team packed its bags for Vegas, cornerback — and safety, to be honest — had become a position of weakness, as a revolving door of would-be starters has left the team in a dubious defensive position year after year after year.
Between failed first-round draft picks and free-agent flops, it has been a near-decade of despair for the Raiders, as the once-vaunted position has become a true Black Hole in the lineup.
When Reggie McKenzie took over as the Raiders’ first general manager on Jan. 10, 2012, following the death of Al Davis during the 2011 season, he inherited a team that had only one legitimate starting corner, young veteran Stanford Routt (Asomugha had left for a big free-agent contract after the 2010 season, opening a revolving door opposite Routt). But one of McKenzie’s first moves was to cut Routt in early February, leaving the team with a pair of job openings.
It was, in many ways, a sign of the problems to come.
(Photo of LaMarcus Joyner in coverage in 2019.)
2012 — Projected starters: Ron Bartell (left) and Shawntae Spencer (right). Actual starters: Michael Huff (left) and several others (right).
Facing salary cap issues and a dearth of high draft picks in his first year as GM, McKenzie tried to buy low on a pair of former starters for other teams to provide his hand-picked head coach, Dennis Allen, with corners. Ron Bartell was a former second-round pick of the then-St. Louis Rams whose fifth season as a starter ended after just one game with a neck injury, while Shawntae Spencer was a former second-rounder of the San Francisco 49ers who also had five years as a starter, but had been benched in 2011 after starting all 16 games in both 2009 and 2010.
And McKenzie’s worst fears came true — Bartell started at left corner on Opening Day … and promptly went down with an injury. Although he started five games at right corner late in the season, he was one-and-done in Silver & Black. He got those starts, of course, because Spencer started the first two games of the year at right corner … and went down for the season with an injury of his own.
The injuries forced free safety Michael Huff to move to left corner, where he started 14 games, and opened a revolving door at right corner, with another free agent, former Green Bay Packer Pat Lee, starting six games before getting cut, then Bartell starting the aforementioned five, waiver claim Phillip Adams starting two and former Packers practice-squadder Brandian Ross ending the year as the starter.
2013 — Projected starters: Mike Jenkins (left) and Tracy Porter (right). Actual starters: Jenkins (left) and Porter (right).
In 2013, free agency brought the Raiders another pair of reclamation projects, as former Dallas Cowboys first-rounder Mike Jenkins had been benched during an injury-plagued 2012 after three seasons in the starting lineup, and Tracy Porter had flopped during a lone, injury-plagued season with the Denver Broncos after starting from Day One during his four years with the New Orleans Saints (a time when he became a familiar face for Allen, a former Saints and Broncos assistant).
The two corners were not guaranteed their spots, however, as McKenzie had used his 2013 first-round pick on a corner, D.J. Hayden, whose time at the University of Houston was marred by a life-threatening injury during his senior year. (Although Woodson returned to the Raiders as a free agent in 2013, he was a free safety at this point in his career.)
The good news was, despite their injuries, both Jenkins and Porter made it through the season. Jenkins started 15 games at left corner, missing the last due to injury (Adams started), while Porter started 13 games at right corner and the other three in the slot (Hayden started two at RCB, while Chimdi Chekwa started one after Hayden went on Injured Reserve).
The bad news was, both Jenkins and Porter were allowed to leave after the season as free agents … reopening the revolving door for 2014.
2014 — Projected starters: Carlos Rogers (left) and Tarell Brown (right). Actual starters: Rogers and D.J. Hayden (left) and Brown (right).
McKenzie famously said he would have picked Hayden third overall in 2013, before swinging a trade that allowed the Miami Dolphins to get pass rusher (and future Raider) Dion Jordan for first- and second-round picks that became Hayden at No. 12 and offensive tackle Menelik Watson. (It is a trade, history would judge, that both teams lost.) But, even with the hope that Hayden would grab a starting job after an injury-shortened rookie year, the GM once again hedged his bets.
In fact, his annual two-CB spending spree in 2014 netted him … the 49ers’ starting lineup from 2013. The two free agents were Tarell Brown, who had started the past three of his seven seasons with the Niners, and Carlos Rogers, who entered his 10th NFL season with eight years of starting experience, the past three in San Francisco and five with the Washington Redskins. McKenzie also spent two later draft picks on corners, fourth-rounder Keith McGill and seventh-rounder T.J. Carrie.
As things turned out, Brown lasted the season at right corner, starting 14 games before missing the last two due to injury. Rogers, however, went down with an injury after seven starts at left corner — but Hayden, who had missed much of the first half of the season due to injury, started the final eight. While several players picked up starts as nickel or slot corners, Carrie and McGill combined for the three extra starts on the outside (Carrie with one on the left and one on the right, and McGill with one on the right). Another down season cost Allen his job, with assistant Tony Sparano finishing the season as interim head coach.
Of course, with Hayden, Carrie and McGill showing promise, both Brown and Rogers were shown the door after the season.
2015 — Projected starters: D.J. Hayden (left) and T.J. Carrie (right). Actual starters: Hayden (left) and David Amerson (right).
The Raiders intended to open the season with Hayden and Carrie in the starting lineup, and both did actually spend a lot of time as starters under new head coach Jack Del Rio — particularly as the Raiders shifted more and more to a five-DB lineup during the season. But it was a waiver-wire acquisition who shook up the secondary and wound up making the biggest impact.
When the Redskins cut former second-round pick David Amerson early in the year, the Raiders claimed him, and he wound up starting 12 of the season’s last 14 games at right CB, making a team-leading five interceptions in the process. Hayden, meanwhile, started 13 games on the left side and played in all 16 for the only time in his four seasons with the Raiders. Carrie opened the season starting at right corner, before shifting to safety when Amerson joined the team. He wound up back at nickel CB in the second half of the season, as the Raiders started three corners, and finished with nine starts at corner and five more at safety.
With three young players on board, it seemed like the Raiders might finally have found some stability at cornerback.
It didn’t last.
2016 — Projected starters: David Amerson (left) and Sean Smith (right). Actual starters: Amerson (left) and Smith (right).
The Raiders dipped back into the free agent pool before the 2016 season, aiming to both strengthen themselves and weaken a division foe by signing former Kansas City Chiefs starter Sean Smith as a free agent to play opposite Amerson, who had signed a big-bucks contract extension during the offseason. That would leave both Hayden and Carrie, the prior season’s opening day starters, seeking scraps in the nickel and other extra-DB sets, victims of the old adage that good players on bad teams often give way as teams improve.
In what would prove to be the Raiders’ lone playoff season between 2003 and 2019, both Smith and Amerson started 15 games, with Amerson moving to the left side to accommodate the veteran. Although neither played especially well, with Smith in particular getting a lot of grief from fans and the media, they were certainly not a problem of any great measure during the team’s fine season. The younger Hayden and Carrie earned the spots they were expected to on an improved team, as each got one start on the outside, while picking up a handful of starts as extra corners.
Amerson, it should be noted, was the first corner since McKenzie arrived to start for two consecutive seasons — albeit after switching sides for 2016. On the other hand, Hayden’s fifth-year option as a first-round draft choice was not picked up, and he left as a free agent after four unfulfilling seasons in Silver & Black.
2017 — Projected starters: David Amerson (left) and T.J. Carrie (right). Actual starters: Several players (left) and Carrie (right).
The Raiders found a replacement for Hayden at the 2017 NFL Draft, as corner Gareon Conley slid in the first round after (unfounded) criminal accusations. The Raiders snatched up the DB, once seen as a potential Top 15 pick, with the 24th choice, and he joined Amerson, Smith, Carrie and a handful of others on the roster for training camp.
Any hopes for stability, however, vanished in a disastrous season that saw the Raiders finish with a losing record — costing Del Rio, lauded a year earlier, his job. First, the still-struggling Smith lost his starting job to Carrie, winding up starting only seven games, mostly in the second half of the year. And, while Carrie went on to start 12 games at right corner — and all 16 for the season — Amerson made only six starts on the left before going down with a season-ending injury.
With Conley limited to only two games on the season due to injuries of his own, players like third-year special-teamer Dexter McDonald and rookie safety Obi Melifonwu wound up making starts on the left side, along with the out-of-favor Smith. None distinguished himself.
With a new (old) head coach coming on board for 2018 with the return of Jon Gruden, the revolving door reopened. Carrie left as a free agent after the season and Amerson and Smith were cut, leaving the Raiders yet again looking, internally and externally, for starting cornerbacks.
2018 — Projected starters: Rashaan Melvin (left) and Gareon Conley (right). Actual starters: Daryl Worley and Melvin (left) and Conley (right).
McKenzie went back to the free-agency well before the 2018 season, signing Rashaan Melvin, a two-year starter with the Indianapolis Colts, and lucking out when the Philadelphia Eagles cut prospective starter Daryl Worley after an offseason arrest. The two would compete with fellow free agents Leon Hall and Shareece Wright, both of whom had starting experience, plus a healthy Conley, youngsters McDonald and Antonio Hamilton, and draft pick Nick Nelson.
Conley, whose health had been an issue, nevertheless started 14 games at right corner. But Melvin, a touted free agent, found himself on the bench after five starts on the left — though he returned to start at LCB in the last two games. Worley, who opened the year serving a league-imposed suspension over his arrest, took over the starting spot for nine games before an injury shortened his season.
Most of the others who went to camp with the Raiders didn’t pan out, although Hall and Nelson picked up a few starts in a nickel role, as did another big-money free agent, Marcus Gilchrist, normally a starting safety.
McKenzie, who had ceded much of his personnel power to Gruden, left after the season, replaced as general manager by television draft guru Mike Mayock. Together, Mayock and Gruden continued to revamp the team in Gruden’s vision — meaning the turnover at corner would continue for at least another year, with Melvin, Gilchrist and others losing their spots on the roster after the season.
2019 — Projected starters: Daryl Worley (left) and Gareon Conley (right). Actual starters: Worley (left) and Trayvon Mullen (right).
Worley and Conley were the favorites to start in 2019, but they were basically the only returning players from the prior year. They would face competition from a new crop of backups and prospects, including Lawson, signed as a free agent, and a pair of draft picks, second-rounder Trayvon Mullen and fourth-rounder Isaiah Johnson, as well as Nelson and a few other lesser-knowns, including training camp surprise Keisean Nixon. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Joyner, one of the offseason’s big-bucks free agent signings, was penciled in not as his former safety position, but the slot corner role.
Injuries and suspensions derailed Mullen, Johnson and Lawson at the start of the season, but six games into the year, Gruden shook up the defensive backfield, trading Conley to the Houston Texans for a draft pick despite his starting for the entire season. He was replaced in the lineup on the right side by Mullen, who would go on to start the season’s remaining 10 games.
Worley, meanwhile, battled injuries and inconsistency to start 15 games, primarily at corner, with Lawson earning most of the backup snaps on the outside after returning from his suspension, and Joyner starting 10 games at both slot CB and safety.
After Further Review …
In 2020, Lawson will certainly get a crack at one starting spot, but his competition will depend in part on whether the Raiders can re-sign fellow free agent Worley, as well as safeties Karl Joseph and Curtis Riley — all scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Joyner remains under contract, but could move back to FS, while 2019 rookies Mullen, Johnson and Nixon and the young veteran Nelson are also back.
Lawson and Mullen probably represent the favorites to start as of this writing — depending on if Worley re-signs — with Johnson in contention, if healthy.
Raiders fans can only hope two of those four prove worthy of starting spots, and, more importantly, prove to have more staying power than so many of their predecessors.
(Editor’s Note: As we work to reboot and redesign the Raiders Research Project for 2020, early-year content may not reflect the final plans for the site in terms of both functionality and content. Please bear with us. ~ Ace)
Sources: Raiders publications; Raiders.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, Wikipedia.org; Twitter/Nevin Lawson.
All photos (except as noted) by Brian Marchiano/Raiders Snake Pit; used with permission.