The Raiders have two new members of their secondary. Cornerback Eli Apple and safety Jeff Heath agreed to join the Silver and Back last week in free agency, part of an effort to shore up the defensive backfield that remains a work in progress.
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock still are on the hunt for more help in an area with plenty of prospects and few established, standout pros.
Here’s how the Raiders secondary would likely look should the season start today:
CB: Eli Apple
S: Johnathan Abram
S: Jeff Heath/Erik Harris
SLOT: Lamarcus Joyner
CB: Trayvon Mullen
Key reserves: Nevin Lawson, Isaiah Johnson, Keisean Nixon, Heath/Harris, Dallin Leavitt
Is that group better than a 2019 unit that featured Daryl Worley, Karl Joseph, Harris, Joyner and Mullen? Not much, if any. It’s certainly functional on paper, maybe not fearsome.
Whether the Raiders can make significant upgrades in the NFL draft by finding someone who can make an instant impact is a large question mark. Defensive backs are one of several remaining needs the Raiders must fill, but it’s hard to count on rookies to play well right away. Last year’s Raiders draft class, which featured six instant impact players, is an outlier to be sure.
The Raiders could certainly count on Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, but it’s virtually certain he will be drafted well before the Silver and Black pick at No. 12 and probably too high [and therefore costly] for a trade up to get him. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper mocked Florida’s C.J. Henderson to the Raiders at No. 12.
The Raiders own the Nos. 12 and 19 selections in this NFL draft, and then don’t pick again until the third round. They traded this year’s second-round pick to Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack trade.
Mullen was a second-round pick that proved effective down the stretch and should be a long-term solution at one cornerback spot. While Abram missed 15 games his rookie year with a shoulder injury, he flashed great ability and set expectations sky high as a tone-setting safety.
Alabama’s Xavier McKinney is built of similar stuff and could well be a first-round pick. The Raiders can’t address every need with an early pick and would be remiss by not adding a receiver on Day 1.
It’s entirely possible the Raiders will go with the group above. If that’s the case, position coach Jim O’Neil’s going to have to coach ‘em up and develop talent. That’s something he’s good at. Apple’s got a lot of untapped potential and a skill set that fits the Raiders' scheme. Heath has plenty of experience as a starter. The team has high hopes for Johnson, who remains a developmental prospect after missing most of last season with a facial fracture.
Joyner’s first Raiders season fell below expectations, but he has a track record of solid performance as a pro.
Abram and Mullen seem to be long-term solutions in the secondary. The Raiders need to identify a few more either on the roster, in the draft or on the open market. That will be important as they continue a roster rebuild that is going well but will take more time to complete.