LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Las Vegas Raiders had one of the worst defensive units in the NFL last season, including a beleaguered secondary that was regularly torched due to growing pains with a young corps.
Problem is, the pass coverage has been an issue since Jon Gruden returned as coach in 2018, with the Raiders allowing 12,172 yards through the air, eighth most in the NFL. They've also given up 97 touchdowns, the second-most total in that span. And they’ve registered just 33 interceptions, tied for 25th.
But you wouldn’t know any of that is a concern Tuesday, when Gruden met with reporters in person for the first time since before the pandemic, as players reported for training camp.
“I’m fired up about the secondary,” he said. “It should be a strength of ours. If it isn’t, we’ve made some real mistakes.”
Mistakes, as in staking plenty of high picks the past couple of years in a secondary that heading into training camp includes 11 active defensive backs with three or fewer years of experience.
The arrival of seasoned veteran Casey Hayward Jr. could bolster the group as the two-time Pro Bowl selection snagged 14 interceptions and had 66 pass deflections in five seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers and is expected to push last year’s first-round pick Damon Arnette.
Arnette battled through a thumb injury, contracted COVID-19 and suffered two concussions during his rookie season, but Gruden insists the former second-team all-Big Ten selection is a “big part of (the Raiders) moving forward.”
“He’s as good a corner as we have talent-wise on this team,” Gruden added. “We think he and Trayvon Mullen, Casey Hayward and some of the other people that are in the mix now give us depth, competition and some interesting matchups.”
Last season, Mullen had a team-high 14 pass deflections and tied for second with two interceptions.
Second-round draft pick Trevon Moehrig, who some projected as a first-round safety but dropped due to a minor back injury, will be challenged by fourth-round pick Tyree Gillespie. He's a hard-hitting safety from Missouri who Gruden said is certainly in the picture and may find himself utilized on special teams and in a dime linebacker role.
“The safety is completely unsolved,” Gruden said. “We’ve got some high draft choices there playing down. We've got some high draft choices playing deep, and we have a great secondary coach in Ron Milus.”
Second-year cornerback Amik Robertson is very much in play, as well, while rookie cornerback Nate Hobbs has Gruden excited knowing he played for former NFL coach Lovie Smith at Illinois.
“Very poised, a lot of knowledge and doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Gruden said of Hobbs. “He has good quickness, has pretty good coverage skills and I think he has versatility to play inside or out. Right now, he’s doing a really nice job as the nickel corner.”
The numerous additions could benefit Johnathan Abram, who was beaten on several big plays last season. But now he might be able to situate himself as a box safety, where his run defense skills and short-route coverage is better suited.
“If I am a Raider fan, I’m coming out here watching practice,” Gruden said. “I’m going to keep a close eye on this secondary.”
Among other things, Gruden also expressed his excitement for the entire defense under new coordinator Gus Bradley, addressed the revamped offensive line that includes newcomers Alex Leatherwood and Andre James, and spoke in depth about the team’s vaccination rate and COVID-19 protocols.
Gruden said every member of his staff has been vaccinated, as well as all but four or five players.
“We’re proud of that, we’re excited about that, we’re also respectful of everybody’s personal opinion,” Gruden said. "So, we have to weigh that as well, but when it comes to vaccinations, we think most of our people have been just that — vaccinated.
“We basically remodeled our facility last year to keep our social distancing. We learned the hard way. I got fined, the Raiders got fined. It wasn’t easy, but it was a part of the process. ... We’re not going to totally disregard where this virus is and the variants that are out there. But I’m not an expert on the virus. I’m just trying to get our football team ready to play and I’m going to do the best I can to carry out the protocols that the league has and what our medical people advise, and we will do our very best.”
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