In the past, the Raiders have invested heavily in the cornerback position with little to show for it. Previous general manager Reggie McKenzie tried in vain to end a series of stopgap solutions at the position, paying Sean Smith eight figures per season in free agency. Waiver claim David Amerson turned one big season into a contract extension, with Smith and Amerson set to earn just under $75 million combined over the life of their deals.
The Raiders, it turned out, still were not set at the position. Neither played out their entire contract. Amerson was around for half of that deal, Smith lasted the same span after getting in trouble with the law.
They looked to the NFL draft after that, making Gareon Conley a 2017 first-round pick. He was traded last season after a largely underwhelming performance. Daryl Worley was allowed to walk out the front door this offseason after being steady but just okay in coverage.
They are not, however, starting from scratch.
Trayvon Mullen established himself after the Conley trade pushed him into the starting lineup, showing an ability to execute the physical coverage style the Raiders prefer. He has the size, speed and aggressiveness to compete in the NFL, exuding confidence in his ability to sustain success.
That’s why he’s a virtual lock to start a one outside cornerback spot this season.
“He is the brightest light of the whole thing for me,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said right after the 2019 season ended. “You know we traded [Gareon] Conley, which was hard to do early in the season. It kind of opened the door for Trayvon. …He’s a tough guy. He’s I think improved his level of play, his overall consistency. He’s got a huge upside and to get our second-rounder playing well is something I’m mostly very excited about.”
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There are plenty of advanced metrics that prove Mullen came on strong after his playing time increased. The Clemson product allowed just 55 percent of his targets to be completed, with 40 catches allowed for 445 yards and three touchdowns. Opposing passers had just an 85.7 rating against him.
The most impressive part of his season, however, came in response to adversity.
Mullen’s welcome-to-the-NFL moment came in the 2019 season opener against the Denver Broncos, when he was forced into action after Conley got hurt. He struggled some dealing with veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, giving up three catches and a touchdown on four targets. Allowing six was brand new for Mullen, who didn’t give up a touchdown in his entire Clemson career.
He didn’t hang his head after a lackluster debut. He watched that film objectively, identifying areas for improvement and positives from the experience.
"I know the type of player I am, how good I am,” Mullen said after the Broncos game. “For me, it's just playing with technique, being physical and playing fast and I'll be alright."
He certainly was. While he didn’t play much until the Conley trade, he consistently was solid in coverage with room for improvement. He was penalized a bit too much down the stretch, but that’s a correctable problem that will work itself out with experience.
Gruden respects toughness and availability and came away impressed by Mullen's ability to rebound from a scary situation. He was carted off the field in a Week 16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers with a head injury, but went right back to practice after being formally cleared.
He finished the season strong, doing enough to prove he belongs in the league and the starting lineup. That’s a welcome point of stability in a secondary with tons of turnover.
The Raiders still are searching for a starter on the opposite side. That’s why they drafted Damon Arnette No. 19 overall and signed veteran Prince Amukamara. That’s why they keep stacking cornerbacks, with Isaiah Johnson and Amik Robertson joining as fourth-round picks in the last two years.
The team remains committed to fixing this premium position in the long term. With Trayvon Mullen set to anchor one spot, they have made great strides in achieving that goal.