Head coach Jack Del Rio said the Raiders would “attack” their secondary with upgrades in free agency and the NFL Draft.
That wasn't an empty promise.
They used significant resources upgrading three fourths of the starting secondary. On Friday, they rewarded the lone returner. David Amerson agreed to a four-year contract extension worth up to $38 million with $17.5 million in guarantees, a deal that ensures he and Sean Smith will anchor outside cornerback spots for the long-term.
Reggie Nelson is also in the mix after snagging eight interceptions in 2015.
The Raiders offered contracts worth up to $84.5 million with $36.5 million in guarantees to that trio.
They also spent a 24-carat gold commodity on West Virginia safety Karl Joseph. If he’s healthy and able, the No. 14 overall pick should pair with Nelson at safety.
Just like that, a weakness became a strength.
The Raiders went with unproven cornerbacks last season and struggled as a result, with Week 3 waiver claim Amerson and now-retired All-Pro Charles Woodson as lone bright spots. They ranked No. 26 in pass defense, allowing 258.8 yards per game and gave up 25 passing touchdowns.
That wasn't good enough. Not even close.
The secondary is better equipped to operate Ken Norton Jr.’s scheme, and provide quality to combine pass rush and coverage the defensive coordinator longs for.
This isn't a one-year fix. The Raiders kept an eye on the future with most of these moves. Smith and Amerson are under contract for the next four seasons. Joseph signed a four-year rookie deal with a fifth-year option.
Nelson, 32, has a two-year deal without dead money or guarantees beyond the season, but the ball hawk should ease Woodson’s loss in deep coverage. Nelson didn’t practice in the offseason program with a lower leg injury believed to be an ankle issue, but Del Rio said in mid June his team should be healthy by late July.
These defensive backs offer stability over recent seasons, where veteran starters rotated in and out. That’s vital in a scheme where execution and chemistry are key. This group can grow together, with some injury protection to survive an injury issue that spelled big trouble in the past.
Nate Allen’s Week 1 knee injury last year prompted cornerback TJ Carrie to play safety, with Taylor Mays and Larry Asante involved with Woodson. Now Allen could be a quality backup or starter if required. DJ Hayden, Carrie and Neiko Thorpe have starter’s experience, and are waiting in the wings at cornerback.
The Raiders gave themselves a project in 2015, to upgrade at the skill spots. New ceivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper and tight ends Lee Smith and Clive Walford certainly did that.
The secondary was this offseason’s focus, and a similar outcome was achieved as the Raiders continue to improve specific weaknesses and the entire team as a result.