OTHER POSITION BATTLES:Wide Receivers
The Oakland Raiders' defense ranked No. 26 in the NFL last season defending the pass, allowing 258.8 yards per game in the air, and for a team with its sights set on competing for the AFC West, that metric has to be better in 2016.
In 2015, the Silver and Black went young on the outside, but injuries and inconsistent play didn't really allow for any type of on-field cohesion for the cornerbacks. General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Co. did find a gem in waiver claim David Amerson, but the organization realized it needed to give the position group a facelift, and added veteran cornerback Sean Smith in the early stages of free agency.
Amerson and Smith are expected to be the team's base cornerbacks, but as we prepare for the start of Training Camp 2016, let's take a look at the entirety of the group, and see what we can expect from them heading into the regular season.
David Amerson – Fourth Season – North Carolina State
Amerson may have been the best waiver claim in the entire NFL last season.
After being waived early in 2015 by the Washington Redskins, Amerson was claimed by the Raiders prior to Week 3, and throughout the season developed into the team's best cover cornerback.
When all was said and done, he set a Raiders' franchise record with 26 passes defensed – including a masterpiece of a game Week 12 against the Tennessee Titans in which he recorded six passes defensed – and also secured four interceptions.
Amerson, along with newcomer Sean Smith is expected to be a base cornerbacks heading into the regular season. Although they've only been together for a few months, Amerson has made an impression on the veteran.
"He's one of the most athletic people I've ever met," said Smith. "D.A. can make all the cuts, all the breaks. I'm definitely looking forward to working with him."
In the 2016 incarnation of the NFL, big, physical cornerbacks are at a premium, and the Silver and Black definitely have that in the tandem of Amerson and Smith.
TJ Carrie – Third Season – Ohio
In his second season in Silver and Black, Carrie was asked to fill multiple roles in the Raiders' secondary.
A cornerback by trade, the former Ohio Bobcat started his first career game at safety in Week 3 after early injuries thinned out the depth at the position. He returned his natural position in Week 10 and put together an admirable sophomore campaign.
So where will Carrie be lining up in 2016? While Head Coach Jack Del Rio has been non-committal, Carrie worked primarily with the cornerbacks throughout the Offseason Workout Program, and with Keith McGill's transition to safety, it would make sense for No. 38 to stay at corner.
Carrie will probably be in the mix with DJ Hayden to be the team's nickel cornerback – as well as provide some depth on the outside – but he's also shown to be a capable return man, finishing the season with 19 punt returns for 118 yards.
Kenneth Durden – Rookie – Youngstown State
After spending three seasons with the University of South Florida, Durden finished up his college career in Ohio, playing for the Youngstown State Penguins, appearing in 11 games and making five pass breakups in 2015.
Signed by the Silver and Black as an undrafted free agent, Durden will have to put together an impressive showing in the first few weeks of training camp to ensure he has a shot at making the final roster.
That being said, the fluidity of the bottom half of the cornerback depth chart could allow for a player like him or Antonio Hamilton to make an impression on the coaching staff.
Antonio Hamilton – Rookie – South Carolina State
Boasting nearly identical measurables, Hamilton and Durden find themselves in very similar situations as they prepare for their first NFL training camp.
Hamilton appeared in 20 games over the course of his career as a Bulldog, but as an undrafted free agent, he'll be facing an uphill climb to finding a spot on the 53-man roster.
Anything can happen once the pads go on, but Hamilton will have to show his worth on the outside – as well as special teams – if he wants to mount a career in Silver and Black.
DJ Hayden – Fourth Season – Houston
In 2015, for the first time in his short career, Hayden appeared in all 16 games for the Raiders. He finished the season with seven passes defensed, and while his season had some peaks and valleys, he led all the team's cornerbacks with 70 tackles.
With the emergence of Amerson and the arrival of Smith, Hayden will most likely not be asked to be one of the team's base cornerbacks, and he spent much of the Offseason Workout Program working from the nickel position – a position that Del Rio believes suits the athletic cornerback.
"He has terrific foot quickness," said Del Rio. "He's intelligent. Those things are definitely factors that help you in that slot."
Del Rio described Hayden's offseason as "really good" and if Hayden could grab the team's nickel cornerback position in training camp, it would pay huge dividends for both the team and himself.
Dexter McDonald – Second Season – University of Kansas
The Raiders selected McDonald in the seventh round (No. 242 overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft, and while he was on active roster for the entirety of his rookie campaign, he only appeared in six games, primarily on special teams.
During his limited opportunity, McDonald proved to be a valuable member of Brad Seely's special teams units, and heading into 2016, it will be interesting to see if he can find his way onto the field more on defense.
McDonald enjoyed a quality Offseason Workout Program, and while he will assuredly remain a key cog on special teams, with the depth at cornerback still a question mark, there could be an opportunity for him to earn his way into the defensive rotation.
Only time will tell, but keep an eye on Dexter McDonald.
Sean Smith – Eighth Season – University of Utah
Standing at 6'3" and tipping the scales at nearly 220 pounds, Smith boasts the prototypical size of a new-age cornerback in 2016 – particularly one who thrives in press coverage.
Throughout his seven-year career, Smith has routinely proven that he's a top-tier cornerback in the NFL – just look at his 10 interceptions and 87 career passes defensed.
As the Silver and Black prepare for training camp, Smith and Amerson will be the team's base cornerbacks, and throughout the Offseason Workout Program, defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. has been pleased with what he's seen from the duo.
"We see a real good backfield," said Norton. "We're improving. We're coaching better. They're playing better. Those two are connected and they work together. They're doing a fantastic job of understanding what we have. We have guys that can cover and we have guys that can rush. That should work out to be pretty good for us."
Neiko Thorpe – Fourth Season – Auburn
In his second full season in Oakland, Thorpe appeared in 14 games, making a pair of starts in the process.
Standing at 6'1", the rangy cornerback showed that he can be a quality contributor on the defensive side of the football in Norton's scheme, as well as on special teams.
Thorpe missed parts of the Offseason Workout Program this spring, but Del Rio is confident that the former Auburn Tiger – as well as the rest of the roster – will be healthy and ready to go when the team reports to training camp.
As Training Camp 2016 rolls on, Thorpe figures to find himself in the battle for the No. 3 or No. 4 cornerback position on the depth chart.
Keep An Eye On…
Where Will DJ Hayden line up in 2016? The former first round draft pick spent most of the Offseason Workout Program working from the nickel position, and early indications are that Del Rio and the coaching staff have liked what they've seen from him.
However, will TJ Carrie – who also has experience playing in the slot – make a run and end up securing the position? This battle will likely last all through the preseason, but it's definitely something to keep an eye on.