NAPA – Raiders cornerback Sean Smith has been a mainstay on the first unit since he signed a four-year, $38 million contract two offseasons ago.
That grip is loosening some. He hasn’t worked with the starting 11 the past three days in deference to TJ Carrie. He was a second unit outside cornerback on Friday and Saturday, but was used as a hybrid linebacker/safety covering tight ends in sub packages on Sunday. He was also a slot corner when the offense went four wide.
That’s a new world for Smith, who has been a starter his entire career. This rotational change doesn’t mean he won’t start in the regular season. It is, however, a sign the Raiders are pushing him with younger cornerbacks. Pressure will likely increase when first-round cornerback Gareon Conley comes off the physically unable to perform list.
His starting spot has become an open competition.
Head coach Jack Del Rio said Smith is handling the assignment change like a pro.
“I think he is,” Del Rio said after Sunday's practice. “Everybody wants to be the guy, and we love that about our guys. We also understand that there’s a lot of competition that takes place out here.”
Smith’s paycheck suggests he should start. That doesn’t mean he will. Del Rio doesn’t include status in his lineup decisions.
“I’m a big believer in that you get what you earn,” he said. “As a team you do, and as a player you do. It’s there for us to decide as we go through camp and get ready for the season. In the meantime, we’re rolling guys through there to make it ultra-competitive. You make something more than you say when you back it up and let other guys get a shot in the rotation.”
Del Rio pointed out competition is being created at several other spots that aren't drawing attention. He's right, but Smith's pedigree and paycheck put him under a stronger spotlight.
Working Carrie in with the first unit has been warrented. He has been good. Smith hasn’t played particularly well early in camp, and has been part of some blown assignments that led to big plays.
That was an issue last year as well. Smith played well for stretches but fell victim to the big play. Passers had a 114.0 rating against Smith last year, with 44 completions on 77 targets for 749 yards and eight touchdowns. His first game was a nightmare, than got him benched after giving up two long touchdowns. He rebounded well starting in Week 3, with a seven-game stretch without a touchdown allowed. He was stingy then, playing to vast potential.
He slipped some at season’s end, when he dealt with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.
He needs to play through this camp setback and rebound again to become a major contributor in this defense.
“What we want to see from all of our guys, is for them to play with positive energy and see a desire to get better,” Del Rio said. “Everybody’s basically in the same boat in terms of meeting the standard we have with the way we want to practice, from the energy, the attention to detail and the focus.”
Smith will be here in 2017, with his $9.5 million salary fully guaranteed in March. His release is far easier next year. That action would not come with dead money or guaranteed funds owed to the defensive back.
-- The Raiders engaged in a physical camp practice in pads, with hard hits especially in 9-on-9 rushing drills. Safety Karl Joseph played especially well in those instances, using an aggressive playing style to knock offensive players. His best effort came early on, when he stripped Marshawn Lynch and allowed the defense to record one of several takeaways on the day.
-- The Raiders held their annual family day on Sunday, where family and friends watch practice and then join a BBQ afterward.
Head coach Jack Del Rio made his players run after practice, but said the action was not punitive. He wanted to get some extra work in before an off day.
“Just a little extra conditioning before they ate some bar-be-que,” Del Rio said. “It was nothing punitive. They’re going to have bar-be-que and get a day off tomorrow, so it’s a good way to finish up. The work their legs some and get back to work on Tuesday.
-- Del Rio creates punitive action for mental mistakes or focus issues, forcing an offensive or defensive unit to do up-downs when one team member makes a mistake. It’s commonplace in his camps, but Del Rio picks his moments when to do it.
“If we’re in a move-the-ball period I generally don’t do it because they’ll feel the effect (of a penalty). When we have scripted plays it’s a reminder that, when you make that kind of mistake, we’re making it a lot harder on ourselves. …We can condition the mind on how to react and respond to the adversity.”
-- The Raiders are practicing without three of their top four draft picks. First-round cornerback Gareon Conley remains on PUP with shin splints. Second-round safety Obi Melifonwu and offensive tackle David Sharpe have been out several days with undisclosed injuries.
“We’re doing the best we can to get those guys schooled up and working with the trainers to get themselves healthy,” Del Rio said. “They’re involved in everything they can be, with meetings so they can plug in as best they can. There are a lot of situations that come up, and we’ll matter-of-factly deal with it.”
In addition to the rookies, edge rusher Shilique Calhoun was out for the first time with an undisclosed injury.
Defensive tackle Jihad Ward remains on PUP recovering from a foot injury, but seems closer to a return. He was doing side work with trainers before practice.
Seventh-round offensive tackle Jylan Ware got hurt in practice and was slow to get up, but left under his own power. He tweeted “No worries. I’m good,” after practice, signifying that he avoided a significant injury.
-- Several young cornerbacks have played well in this camp. Undrafted rookie Breon Borders has received several compliments on his play. Antonio Hamilton and Kenneth Durden had a strong performance on Sunday. Dexter McDonald has also produced well in this camp.