How Sean Smith can redeem himself in 2017

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 09: Sean Smith
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 09: Sean Smith /

Oakland Raiders cornerback Sean Smith had a rough debut season in Silver and Black, but there is reason to believe he can bounce back in 2017.

Because of its many nuances and intricacies, cornerback may be the hardest position on the football field to both play and evaluate at any time, behind quarterback. No other position lies more readily at the mercy of the scheme or philosophy of its unit. No other position requires the player to mirror and/or react to two players’ decisions simultaneously, while maintaining comprehension of what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’re trying to accomplish it. And the very best CBs need to possess an otherworldly sense of timing, anticipation, mental processing and physical fluidity. That’s why of all the players who’ve been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only ten of those played cornerback exclusively — all in an era that was much less strict about how those players got the job done. All of that is important to remember when discussing Sean Smith’s struggles during his debut season with the Oakland Raiders.

Based on both his prior success and the size of the contract he signed, expectations for his play were considerably high at the start of last season; suffice it to say, he did not meet them. He was bad enough to the point where it wouldn’t have been completely surprising if Reggie McKenzie & Co. had decided to cut ties with him before March this year. He’s obviously still around, but they were definitely concerned enough to spend a first-round pick on an elite CB prospect, unwavered by his sexual assault accusations.

Sean’s been good over the course of his career, though, and that’s definitely worth mention, if only because it means he can be good once more. Moreover, after an absolutely abysmal start to 2016, he somewhat improved and leveled off his play down the stretch. All of that is good news for the Nation, as we enter what is probably the most important season for the franchise in twenty years.

So where should we set our expectations for Smith as the start of the season draws near?

First and foremost, we need to establish a thorough understanding and tell some hard truths about who Sean Smith is as a player. At his absolute peak (he turned 30 this week; let’s assume he’s on the other side of said peak) and under the right conditions, he’s an above-average, even very good corner.

The second part of that statement is key — the conditions have to be optimal. The 2016 Oakland Raiders defensive unit could be described in a plethora of ways; “optimal conditions” is not one of them. Having Khalil Mack certainly helps, and Bruce Irvin was phenomenal. Reggie Nelson played well enough to be voted to the Pro Bowl in his 10th season, and 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph showed flashes in between recovering from an injury in his senior year at West Virginia and developing new ones toward the end of last year. After that, things get dicey at best.

Long story short, Smith is not a “shutdown” corner or a guy that’s going to take away half the field just on playmaking ability alone. With some talent around him in key places, though, he can be incredibly effective, and make things considerably difficult for opposing receivers. He’s just spry enough to provide good coverage and stay in the pocket of most receivers on short and intermediate routes, and uses his physicality and straight-line speed to pin receivers to the sideline and break up deep pass routes.

Smith’s biggest weapon as a corner is his significant size advantage. Listed at 6’3”, 220 pounds (and looking every ounce of that) it’s no secret that that’s a large part of the reason McKenzie took an interest in him in particular as a free agent.

However, that size can also work against him as well, as evidenced in last year’s opener against the Saints, where he was, well, cooked, by Brandin Cooks. Smaller, quicker receivers gave Sean the fits in 2016; he’s certainly not the fastest corner in the league by any means. Once he’s beat, any quarterback worth his salt is going to find an easy completion in his direction. There’s been talk that he was perhaps too heavy last year, and there may be some merit to that. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of shape he shows up to camp in this year.

Even still, during his three seasons as a member of the most domestic violence-friendly organizations in the AFC West, under Bob Sutton’s 3-4 defense, Smith was regularly asked to and flourished using his size to jam and disrupt opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage in Cover 1 looks (with one safety over the top playing centerfield). His success doing so made him one of the top-ranked corners in the league during that time.

But he was also a member of one of the best and most talented defensive units in the league during that time, as well — he had the benefit of working with Eric Berry, the 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Marcus Peters, and behind a front-seven that included pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

That makes a tiny bit of a difference, methinks.

The Raiders have drafted incredibly well in recent years, of course, and are well on their way to matching, if not exceeding the talent of those Chiefs units. But it’s a big “if”, admittedly; assuming that Mario Edwards Jr. is both totally healthy *AND* returns to form, Reggie Nelson’s age doesn’t catch up with him dramatically, and Karl Joseph, Darius Latham and David Amerson continue to trend upward, all while Gareon Conley, Obi Melifonwu and Eddie Vanderdoes are significant contributors in their rookie seasons are a LOT of conditionals to stake success on. It’s not impossible, but Kevin Garnett just read that paragraph and wiped his brow.

Additionally, the Raiders will need to finally crystallize and clarify their defensive approach. We’ve talked at length before about the implementation of Norton’s Seattle-derived 4-3 Under base, which asks its secondary play three-deep coverage shell primarily, and the adjustments the unit needed to make coverage-wise in tailoring the defense to the Raiders’ personnel.

Early this offseason, it was announced that former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano would be joining the Raiders in a role that’s mostly been loosely defined, but he’s expected to contribute to the defense, and especially the secondary. During his tenure in San Diego, the Chargers favored a blitz-happy 3-4 front with three-deep coverage in the secondary, so it might be safe to assume that the Raiders will show more of those looks this year, in conjunction with the Quarters (Cover 4) looks they transitioned to in the latter part of the season.

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Hopefully, Pagano can continue to help Smith adjust to the role he has to play within that defense, while simplifying things for the secondary as a whole — especially the young core of Conley, Melifonwu and Joseph.

Overall, the point is that while it’s easy to highlight Smith’s struggles alone, they are merely a symptom of the unit’s collective ineptitude. The threshold for the defense to improve, while admittedly somewhat flimsy, is sizable (can’t go anywhere but up) and certainly doable. #21 is a year older, but also a year wiser, and experience and familiarity should yield some more favorable results this season.

Smith himself can certainly be more disciplined in his approach and technique than he was last year (despite the win, the New Orleans game should haunt him forever), and I definitely have faith that he will. He’ll will walk into camp next week as the assumed CB1, and will have an opportunity to prove the validity of the contract he signed in 2016. With the Raiders’ expectations higher than they’ve been in over fifteen years, and what was regarded by many as the best corner in this year’s draft class breathing down his neck, there’s reason to believe Smith will be less of the version he was this time last year, and more of the guy he’s been throughout his decade-long career.