2021 Position Battle: Casey Hayward Jr. is in line to be a leader for this young Raiders secondary

Good news: The Raiders secondary proved to me last season that they don't lack talent, athleticism or grit when they step onto the football field.

Not so good news: They made a lot of mental mistakes last season.

When you have a secondary still trying to figure things out on the next level, there are going to be some growing pains. That's undeniable. However, the Raiders young defensive backs have the potential to be great and must show that on a consistent level this upcoming season if this young defense wants to succeed.

Alongside the offensive line, the most active competition on the roster might be among the cornerbacks and safeties this Training Camp and preseason. There are currently 12 cornerbacks and six safeties on the roster, with a few of them locked into secure roles going into camp. Everyone is battling to prove they can help benefit the defense.

One of the most impressive cornerbacks returning to the mix is Trayvon Mullen. Going into his third season, Mullen has progressively gotten better each of his two years in the league and looks well worth the second-round value the Raiders got him for out of Clemson University. Last season, No. 27 led the team in pass deflections (14) and was tied for second on the team in interceptions (two).

And according to Mullen, he's not letting up for anyone.

"I feel like I'm better than ever," Mullen said during OTAs. "I trained hard this offseason. I'm still going hard, learning this new system, helping the young guys. Being around the young guys is helping me get even better. Being accountable of a lot of things. Trying to be that leader for the younger guys, so I can be good for myself and as a team, for my teammates, but I feel like I'm better than ever."

A couple of other returning defensive backs the Raiders will expect a lot out of are safety Johnathan Abram and cornerback Damon Arnette. Both were first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 and have a lot of expectations on them to play up to their first-round status. While both have flashed greatness, injuries and learning curves have held them back from their full pro potential. With new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley bringing in a new defense that should cater the abilities of these two, General Manager Mike Mayock is keeping his eye on the progression of his two first-round defensive backs, as well as Mullen.

"We've got a first-round safety in John Abram ... another first-round corner in Damon Arnette and we mentioned Trayvon Mullen in the second who we think is going to be a heck of a player," Mayock said earlier this offseason. "So, really, what we need more than anything is for all those players to take it up a notch or two. I'm talking about commitment to the game, work ethic, perseverance, being in the locker room working with your brothers. All those things are critical.

"We've expended some draft capital on what we think are some very talented players, and now all of them need to take a collective step forward."

The biggest two additions to the Raiders secondary this offseason have been free agent Casey Hayward Jr. and 2021 second-round draft pick Tre'von Moehrig. Hayward comes to the Raiders with the most knowledge of the defense having been coached by Bradley and defensive backs coach Ron Milus for five seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers.

In Hayward's time with the Chargers, he caught 14 interceptions, had 66 pass deflections, was a two-time Pro-Bowler and only missed two games. Milus is depending on Hayward to use his talent and veteran experience to get the young secondary more disciplined and on the right track.

"[Hayward's] been doing everything we thought he was going to do," Milus said in the offseason. "Next year will be my sixth year with Casey, so we've kind of grown together. ... When he was available after the draft we thought it was a perfect fit. He comes in, he knows what to do. If I'm not able to relay the information, you can always ask Casey because Casey's been doing the same thing for a number of years in this system.

"Casey brings that professionalism to the table ... and he's going to help our young players because he's been around the block a couple of times."

Moehrig, the 2020 Jim Thorpe Award winner out of TCU, might benefit the most from having Hayward in Las Vegas with him. The rookie has a lot on his plate this offseason, as the Raiders traded up in the second round to get him. Moehrig could easily work his way into a starting free safety role in this defense coming out of training camp. Hayward might see extensive playing time this season next to Moehrig, so he'll play a pivotal role in making sure the rookie learns the defense.

Bold Predictions

As for the secondary, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Mike Mayock got it right in the draft.

I believe the Raiders drafted three defensive backs who can make an immediate impact in Moehrig, Nate Hobbs from Illinois and Tyree Gillespie from Missouri. I would go as far as to put Moehrig on the shortlist for AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. The only Raiders draft pick to win the award has been 2021 Hall of Fame enshrinee Charles Woodson, who like Moehrig, won the Jim Thorpe Award before being drafted by the franchise.

Hobbs and Gillespie are two tough, under-the-radar players who also have a chance to do great things and prove themselves during Training Camp. Both possess great speed and ability to roam to the ball and have pleased many players and coaches in-house during OTAs and minicamp.

The future looks bright for the three 2021 draft picks.

View photos of the Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs heading into 2021 Training Camp.

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