Yesterday, the Raiders announced that veteran Cornerback Leon Hall had been signed. RaiderNation collectively groaned as they helped they had hoped for in younger, bigger named free agents would not be coming. While General Manager Reggie McKenzie certainly made a reputation for shopping in the “bargain” aisle, Hall’s signing is not more of the same. He and Shareece Wright, more so than Rashaan Melvin, represent something the Raiders seemingly lacked last season; quality control.
In the mid-2000’s Raider Faithful began to dub certain players “Al Davis Scholarship Players”. These players such as Stanford Routt or Chaz Schilens were perennially expected to take the next step each season. Both appeared guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster. After the 2016 season, it seemed as though the Raiders looked beyond the years long blight of underperforming players on bloated contracts. For the most part, they were, but both Sean Smith and David Amerson’s performance last season gave McKenzie the ghost of Raiders’ past.
The way around this problem, in addition to salary cap gymnastics, is quality control and an understanding of scheme. If a team has players who meet the schematic minimums required to execute an offense, defense, or special teams then, in theory, the scheme should work. Jon Gruden intimated as much when he noted that Reggie McKenzie had been drafting for different coaches every other year. If a rookie is unable to unseat the veteran the team at the very least knows there is a player on the roster to fill the position adequately.
If the rookie wins the job, he likely is going to be at the very least average at the position. One such player, trapped in that overlap is defensive back Obi Melifonwu. His selection was based on potential role in a scheme the Raiders no longer intend to execute. If he cannot wrest a starting role somewhere, his days on the roster maybe fewer than expected.
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To prepare for this, the Raiders added Leon Hall, the epitome of plug-and-play at corner for Paul Guenther for almost a decade. While never a top-tier player, he will fulfill his role. Hall bounced around in the two seasons since he left Cincinnati, but proved to be a bit of an ageless wonder. While never notching more than two interceptions in the last three seasons, he has consistently finished inside of PFF’s top 50.
No small feat considering his age and the tread on his tires. At this point, in his career, Leon Hall will not start on the outside. Plus, Hall played both Slot Cornerback and Safety. Instead, Hall is effectively a gatekeeper for players like Obi who needs to find a role somewhere. Instead of trying to fit a player like Sean Smith, a known quantity, into an inside role the staff can try Obi. If he fails, know that Hall can cover that spot.
This logic is the same for the signing of Shareece Wright. N one considers Wright a blue chip or made it to a second contract with a team. Yet, Wright remains the consummate professional. As a result, he finds work. Wright will never be asked to shut down an elite receiver, but he can do a solid job on the secondary and tertiary targets that gave the Raiders fits last season.
With more offenses opting to open up the field with spread concepts, every defensive coordinator will need a group do defensive backs that go four and five deep. In addition, a cap hit of under $1 million, if a late round pick beats him out. The Raiders lose nothing in cutting him and gain the competition and wisdom for the draft pick that won. With Gruden issuing challenges to players, he has not even met yet, expect him to lean on intra-team competition. This will shape the line up rather than draft stock or sweat equity.
As the roster continues to churn, expect more veteran signings. Yet, almost none of them should be expected to start. What it seems like the new staff wants to do is establish a minimum level of competency at each position. Then, they’d draft players who they think can do better. If they cannot find it in the draft, they should be fine for a season. However, if they can, there will not be any scholarship players due to contract structure. If this works, the Raiders can use these veterans to push performance the floor higher.