Do the Raiders have enough outside cornerback depth?
Hobbs had an incredible rookie season from the slot, but it’s unclear whether he’ll remain inside during the upcoming season.
At Illinois, Hobbs was an outside cornerback. His transition to the slot at the next level was sudden, ignited by former Raiders’ general manager, Mike Mayock, and his awe at Hobbs. When Mayock watched the film, he guessed the Illinois corner would be a stud playing inside. To Mayock’s credit, he couldn’t have been more correct.
"“I got off the phone and literally put his tape on right there and I was like, man, he competes. He tackles. He’s tough. He’s a three-year starter in the Big Ten. He was an outside corner almost predominantly and he played special teams. This was a hard-noised, tough guy. And he just ran 4.45 and jumped 41 inches. I spent about two hours watching him, get out of my chair, sprinted downstairs to the second floor, grabbed Ron Milus, the defensive back coach.”"
After Mayock and the Raiders’ former head coach Jon Gruden transitioned Hobbs to nickel, the new Raiders’ head coach, Josh McDaniels, has opened the door back up for a return to the outside.
“There’ll be an opportunity for Nate to compete at all those spots”, McDaniels replied when asked if Hobbs will return to the slot in 2022. This is right up defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s ally, as versatility is the trait Graham thinks the highest of.
Truth be told, It’s hard for me to see the ’21 rookie starting anywhere except nickel. I say this not due to a predicted struggle of Hobbs on the outside, but rather due to the now-abandoned slot cornerback spot in the event this transition happens.
Let me explain.
Through the first two months of football, Hobbs was the no.1 rated slot corner, per Pro Football Focus. At season’s end, the fifth-round pick was the no.9 rated rookie leaguewide of any position, and no.1 among first-year cornerbacks. This is quite the feat when you consider the ’21 NFL rookie-class housed extremely promising cornerback talents, most notably Patrick Surtain II and Asante Samuel Jr.
The competition at the slot is Cre’Von LeBlanc. During the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in ’18-’19, LeBlanc posted the highest PFF grade of any cornerback in the postseason leading up to the big game. His performance through the playoffs helped Philadelphia take home their first Lombardi Trophy, continuously showing up in key moments.
Since things have only gone downhill.
2019 was still productive for the first-year slot cornerback in Las Vegas, breaking up two passes on the nine balls thrown his way. This marked a career-low 78.0 opposing quarterback rating, with a PFF grade of 69.6.
Things truly took a turn for the worst in 2020, with career-worsts across the board. The 78.1 percent of passes allowed to be completed was a career-low, as was LeBlanc’s opposing quarterback rating when targeted with 108.7. Naturally, the former Eagle earned a lower PFF grade than he’s ever earned, posting a grade of 47.7. This past season, LeBlanc didn’t play at all.
That’s Hobbs’ replacement at nickel, should Hobbs go to the outside.
On the other side of the coin, Trayvon Mullen will be the second starting outside cornerback, should Hobbs remain in the slot. Mullen has never allowed a completion percentage north of 62.5%, nor a quarterback rating over 94. In every sense, it makes the most sense to keep Hobbs at the spot he exceled at, effectively keeping Mullen in a starting role he plays well in. As they say, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”.
I know you've heard it: Raiders WR Davante Adams will regress now that he has Derek Carr as his QB, instead of Rodgers. Let's disprove that theory.
All this said, I find it likely Graham will rotate Hobbs into an outside role on occasion, giving LeBlanc the chance to get back into form on the slot – Should LeBlanc make the roster. If Hobbs can play both cornerback positions well, the Raiders’ secondary will truly be one that keeps opposing quarterbacks on their toes; Rotations will be frequent, and depth will be vast.