COMMENTARY | The secondary was a major issue for the Oakland Raiders all last year. Due to injuries to the two starting cornerbacks, Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, Oakland was forced to bring in guys off the street and practice squads. The entire unit as a whole was without a doubt the worst unit in all of the NFL and possibly even the CFL.
General manager Reggie Mckenzie took steps to remedy the situation in free agency by signing cornerbacks Mike Jenkins from the Dallas Cowboys and Tracy Porter, who spent last year with the Denver Broncos. Then, in a somewhat shocking move, he also used the No.12 overall pick in the draft on CB D.J. Hayden, out of Houston, who had almost died in a freak injury on the practice field in November 2012 that tore the inferior vena cava in his heart. He also addressed the free safety position by signing Usama Young from the Cleveland Browns and fan favorite and future hall of famer Charles Woodson, who had spent the last seven years with the Green Bay Packers after beginning his career in Oakland.
LCB: Although there are still some injury concerns surrounding D.J Hayden, I believe he is now 100 percent healthy and will emerge as a starter in camp. I know some will disagree with me on this, but he was the best pure cover corner in the draft, and he will play as such. Head coach Dennis Allen’s background in coaching defensive backs will help bring him along steadily while the presence of Charles Woodson will also contribute to his development. Look for him to have an above average rookie campaign.
RCB: The battle for the second starting job is going to come down to Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. Both have been solid starters in the past but are coming off bad years and in Porter’s case; a year plagued with health issues and unexplained seizures that could have been caused by the high altitude and thin air of Denver. Reuniting with Dennis Allen, who was the defensive backs coach during the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl winning season in 2009 that Porter played on, may give him an edge in winning the starting job. But I think Mike Jenkins is going to return to his 2010 pro-bowl form and emerge victorious as the starter. Jenkins has great man-to-man coverage skills and excelled in the Cowboys system until Rob Ryan took over as defensive coordinator in 2011 and switched to a soft, zone heavy system. In addition to the system change, Jenkins also battled injuries all of 2011, but he still manged to have a solid season while playing in only 12 games. Look for him to rebound this year playing in a system more suited to his skill set and have a good year.
NB: There will be three men battling it out for the nickleback position; Tracy Porter, Joselio Hanson and Phillip Adams. Porter looks to have the early advantage going into camp, but Phillip Adams who Pro Football Focus has dubbed a secret superstar will challenge him. There’s not much to say about Hanson, he is undersized and was burned often last year. I don’t look for him to really challenge to start this year. In the end I think Porter will win the job, providing he can stay healthy. Adams will be breathing down his neck the entire time, though, so it will be an interesting battle to watch in camp and preseason.
FS: This is an easy one. Charles Woodson will be holding down the free safety position and is a major upgrade from Matt Giordano, who was absolutely terrible last year. Usama Young, who is also a capable starter, will be backing him up, and also coming in when Woodson needs a breather or in coverage packages. With the strong coverage skills of both starting cornerbacks, look for Woodson to be a roamer in the secondary and have a great season.
SS: Another easy one here. Longtime starter Tyvon Branch is secure in his position at strong safety and should have an exceptional year. Often trying to compensate for poor play from the other positions in the secondary last year, Branch was often overwhelmed and left on his own. He still played well and is one of the few returning starters on defense. With all of the additions in the secondary this year, look for Branch to have an above average campaign. A very solid tackler, he will come up to support the run and even be featured in some zone blitz packages this year.
Breakout Player: I have to go with D.J. Hayden. I think he is really gonna surprise a lot of people and play very well. The kid is smart, understands the game and more importantly the cornerback position. He has an extremely good work ethic and all the physical skills necessary to make it in the NFL.
Honorable Mention: Once again, Phillip Adams looks primed to challenge for a starting job this year. Assuming he can stay healthy, look for him to be pushing hard for playing time.