Eighth in a series analyzing Raiders position groups with players reporting to camp Tuesday:
Projected starters: RCB Nnamdi Asomugha, LCB Chris Johnson, SS Tyvon Branch, FS Hiram Eugene. Backups: CB Stanford Routt, S Mike Mitchell, S Michael Huff, Justin Miller, CB John Bowie, CB Jason Horton, CB Darrick Brown, S Jerome Boyd.
If Johnson plays as he did after taking over for much-maligned (and deservedly so) DeAngelo Hall last season, the Raiders may have the best pair of cornerbacks in the NFL. Routt appears resigned to being a nickel back and got on Tom Cable’s bad side with some attitude issues so he’ll be watched closely by the coaching staff. Miller stepped in and played decently last season but is primarily a kickoff return specialist. Bowie was beaten often during offseason practices when Asomugha and Johnson didn’t attend OTAs. Huff could be arrested for loitering, given that he is always hanging around where plays are being made but never quite gets in on the action. Horton and Brown are the kind of physical specimens the Raiders love and hope there is a Johnson-type success story in one or both. Boyd is an intriguing conversion project, having played linebacker at Oregon, and caught Cable’s eye during the offseason.
The key battle: Mitchell vs. Eugene. The Raiders want Branch and Mitchell to be their safety tandem of the future, and claim their positions are interchangeable this year from strong to free.
What I think: A good pass rush is always huge with regard to a secondary, but it’s even bigger where the Raiders are concerned considering their play at safeties. They’re expecting big things out of Branch and Mitchell, and bottom line is the former was a fourth-round draft pick who was hurt most of last year and the latter was an out-of-nowhere draft pick that some teams didn’t have on their board until the sixth round or later. A huge gamble, but one that could change the tone of the entire defense if they’re right.
What could go wrong: Mitchell has already had hamstring issues, both in training for his predraft workout and after he joined the Raiders. Johnson was almost too good to be true last year as a 29-year-old first-time starter. If he reverts to journeyman status, it will be a long year opposite Asomugha.