Charles Woodson enjoyed a bounce-back year in 2015 as he led the team with five interceptions and notched his ninth Pro Bowl invitation. Since the future Hall of Famer played at such a high level, his retirement announcement last winter surprised some. Heading into the offseason, General Manager Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders were faced with the unenviable task of replacing a legend and a fan favorite at that.
The former Heisman trophy winner's departure, lingering concerns over Nate Allen's health, and a cupboard full of unproven players left the Raiders secondary devoid of presumptive starters heading into the team's offseason program. Last season it was a given Woodson would have one spot and almost a foregone conclusion Allen would win the other job.
A few weeks ago, Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the team would look to add talent at the safety spot.
"We need to acquire some people there, we're going to make it more competitive throughout this offseason we'll continue to monitor availability as free agents, we'll continue to monitor and prepare ourselves for the draft," said Del Rio. "To me, you have to acquire talent, you have to acquire guys who can get it done in the back end and be able to make plays. It helps if you have veteran experience but it's not a must-have if you acquire talent."
General Manager Reggie McKenzie signed former Cincinnati Bengal Reggie Nelson earlier this week.
Much to his surprise, Nelson went unsigned during the initial wave of free agency despite recording the best year of his NFL career. He tied for the league lead with eight interceptions last season and earned his first Pro Bowl selection in the process. By joining the Silver and Black, Nelson is also reuniting with his former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, Jack Del Rio.
"I was shocked. I expected to be signed, but patience is a virtue. I just was being patient and waiting on the right team," Nelson said. "It so happened Oakland came and Jack was in Oakland, so I felt comfortable coming back with Jack and just reuniting with him."
The Raiders addressed the cornerback position shortly after free agency opened, landing former Kansas City Chief Sean Smith to pair with last year's waiver wire steal David Amerson. Adding Nelson shores up the safety spot and could give the Raiders a lot of flexibility in coverage.
TJ Carrie moved from cornerback to safety for a stretch last season when Allen injured his knee, and performed admirably. He could be used in a variety of ways. SaQwan Edwards and Dewey McDonald are unknown entities. Brynden Trawick comes over from Baltimore but he's recorded just 30 total tackles in three seasons. The Raiders could also elect to bring current unrestricted free agent Larry Asante back. He has played in 22 games since joining the Silver and Black late in the 2014 season. Asante chalked up 30 tackles and three passes defensed last season.
Raiders defensive backs coaches Marcus Robertson and Rod Woodson certainly have the playing experience and NFL game knowledge to bring this group along. Adding veterans like Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson will help fill the leadership void created by Charles Woodson's departure.
By all accounts, the only safety worth taking in the first round of the draft is Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, who will probably be used more as a cornerback in the NFL. A name that is starting to pick up steam is West Virginia's Karl Joseph. The 5'10", 205-pounder missed half of last season with a knee injury suffered in practice. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah spoke very highly of Joseph during a recent national media conference call.
"I am a huge Karl Joseph fan from West Virginia. If he didn't get hurt during the year this year I think we'd be talking about him as a lock as a first round pick," Jeremiah said. "He's somebody that doesn't have the ideal size. He's just under 5'10", 205 pounds. He makes plays sideline to sideline with range. He will fill the alley with bad intentions. He's got good ball awareness, good ball skills. So he can play that high safety. We see so many guys that we talk about dropping down and being a force defender and traditional old school strong safety. He's a pure free safety, and I like him a lot."
Other safeties mentioned on that call include Ohio State's Vonn Bell and Joseph's West Virginia teammate K.J. Dillon.
The Raiders could also choose to add depth at the cornerback position via the draft. Raiders.com has been tracking expert mock drafts since January and the Silver and Black have been linked to Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, Clemson's Mackensie Alexander, Houston's William Jackson III, and Ohio State's Eli Apple.
Replacing a legend is never easy. Neither is building a championship team. However, General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jack Del Rio are aggressively putting the pieces in place. Nelson may have been added late in the process, but he could serve as a worthy successor as the last line of defense of what's shaping up to be a very talented group.
"Trust me, you can't replace Charles Woodson at all. The only guy I can be is Reggie and continue to play my game and get better," Nelson added. "All that I can do is come in and do what [defensive coordinator] Ken [Norton, Jr.] and Jack ask me to do and play my game and continue to go get that ball."