As a cornerback, the line between playing too aggressively and playing conservatively can often be blurred.
On an island out wide, every move a defensive back makes can be criticized or praised, all depending on the outcome, but regardless, the mentality has to stay the same; know when to attack and know when to stay grounded, and move on to the next play.
Now with one regular season game under his belt, Oakland Raiders rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen is quickly realizing how he needs to adapt at the NFL level.
Against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, the former Clemson Tiger was thrown into the fray after starting cornerback Gareon Conley was carted off a field with an injury — Conley seems to be fine, but the coaching staff will remain cautious. Forced to face the elusive and speedy Emmanuel Sanders, Mullen held his own, but gambled on a couple of plays and paid the price.
In man coverage, Mullen tried to beat Flacco's quick pass to Sanders on a short curl route, diving to try and bat the pass, but missed it by a millisecond. Sanders hauled in the pass and burst upfield.
"He's got to play better," Coach Gruden said pointedly Tuesday. "He's had some moments that he struggled, he gambled and lost in a situation I don't think he should gamble there, but I'm not going to criticize him here today. He's got to play better, especially if Gareon can't go, but here is a guy that is a rookie. He missed a lot of time in camp and he does have talent. I expect him to pick it up."
The play ended up resulting in some needed points for the Broncos, and in hindsight, Mullen probably should've played it conservatively, but it was a valuable teaching moment for the rookie.
"I talked to [Coach Gruden] today on the field," he said in response to Coach Gruden's comments. "He was telling me just to keep playing hard, he believes in me, he trusts me. Just go ahead and take it, play my game. For me, on that play I felt like I had it. I felt like I had it, so that's what made pull the trigger to take that opportunity. It's a learning experience for me to play it a better way, so even if he catches the ball I can make the tackle."
Playing aggressive is a part of Mullen's identity and while he needs to be more cognizant of the play clock and scoreboard, Derek Carr like's seeing the rookie take some risks.
"I got to be honest, man, I love him competing like that," Carr said Wednesday. "When you see that as a quarterback, you better be accurate with the ball when you're throwing against him. You have a young kid out there and young guys are going to get burnt, so you might as well cut it loose. He's going to make mistakes. He's going to make the DB coach mad at some point. He's a rookie. But I'd rather him do it full speed, and diving trying to pick the ball off.
"You see someone competing like that, it reminds me a lot of Marcus Peters when he was a young guy. Peters he would give up a play here or a play there, but then he'd change the game with a pick. He'd change the game by seeing something, falling off and picking a ball off. When he's competing and playing his tail off like that, everyone is high-fiving after that."
At some point, the mistakes will become game-changing plays and Mullen will continue to learn the ropes week-by-week. It's hard to fault him for being eager to make a play in his first career game, and the adrenaline was flowing. In his first NFL action, he certainly showed potential and his rangy athleticism, and from a mental standpoint Mullen took a lot away from his first NFL action.
In Week 1, Mullen faced a tame offense compared to what's about to waltz into the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sunday, and he's ready for the challenge.
"They [the Kansas City Chiefs] do got a lot of playmakers and I think for me personally it's just my technique," Mullen said. "Just knowing what to do, being where I need to be, and just getting my job done. Just knowing down and distance, and knowing the call, and what can hurt me the worst. Using my help and protection, and as a whole we just got to go out there and play aggressive, physical, and fast. Lean on our technique at the end of the day and I think we'll pretty fine."
Fortunately, he has a cast of talented veterans around him to help bring him along. If Gareon Conley is unable to play, Mullen will undergo another baptism by fire, but what a better way to learn, right?
Following their Week 1 victory against the Denver Broncos, the Raiders hit the practice fields to prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.