Oakland Raiders Camp Battle: Cornerback

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystJuly 12, 2012

Oakland Raiders Camp Battle: Cornerback

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    The Oakland Raiders ranked 27th in the league in pass defense in 2011 and gave up 251.4 yards per game through the air. The Raiders had one of the worst secondaries in all of football and repeatedly collapsed late in games. Losses against Buffalo, Detroit and San Diego can be directly attributed to the weakness of the secondary.

    Particularly weak was the cornerback position, as the team recorded only five interceptions from this position. General manager Reggie McKenzie immediately came in and made changes by releasing Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson and not re-signing Lito Sheppard and Joe Porter.

    With so little depth or quality options, McKenzie brought in Ron Bartell, Shawntae Spencer, Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood to solidify the position. The competition is expected to get heated with at least three positions up for grabs. The new scheme means there will be plenty of opportunities for players to impress the new regime during training camp. 

    Let's take a look at how each cornerback fits into the competition.

Ron Bartell

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    How He Was Acquired: Signed a one-year, $3 million contract.

    2011 Role: Starting cornerback for one game. Spent the rest of the season as an injured reserve due to a serious neck injury. 

    2012 Role: Starting cornerback

    Ron Bartell is an underrated cornerback.

    Part of that could be because he's spent the last seven years in St. Louis during a period in which the Rams averaged under six wins per season. Bartell has been with five different head coaches and at least three different defensive coordinators.

    Despite all the change and futility, Bartell was a constant for the Rams defense from 2007 to 2010. During that time, Bartell recorded eight forced fumbles, five interceptions, 233 tackles and 47 passes defended.

    Bartell may be the only cornerback not facing stiff competition for a job. Not only did the Raiders make him a priority signing in free agency, but the Raiders need to focus on  determining the other starter outside and at the increasingly important slot cornerback position.

Shawntae Spencer

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    How He Was Acquired: Signed a one-year, $825,000 contract.

    2011 Role: Backup

    2012 Role: Starting or Slot Cornerback

    Like Bartell, Spencer is a veteran cornerback that is underrated.

    The defense in San Francisco has been very good and younger players pushed Spencer down the depth chart in 2011. Much of the credit for the success on defense in San Francisco has gone to the linebackers and defensive line, but Spencer was also a contributor.

    Spencer started 32 straight games for the 49ers from 2009 to 2010 and was given a grade of 74 by Stats, Inc., four points higher than Bartell. He's a solid overall cornerback, but the Raiders want to give their young cornerbacks the opportunity to compete and that could come at Spencer's expense.

    Expect Spencer to be heavily involved on defense, even if he doesn't start, because he'll likely at least be the slot cornerback, a position that has become an increasingly important position on defense.

DeMarcus Van Dyke

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    How He Was Acquired: Round 3, Pick 81, 2011 NFL Draft

    2011 Role: Backup

    2012 Role: Starting or Slot Cornerback

    Van Dyke was pushed into starting four games in 2012 due to injury. According to Stats, Inc. via Paul Gutierrez of CSNBayArea.com, Van Dyke had a burn rate of 43.8 which is comparable to Stanford Routt's 47.4 burn rate.

    Overall, Van Dyke was competitive in his four starts, but he'll need to improve upon his play in 2011 to have a shot at a starting job in 2012. Van Dyke is thinly built and needs to bulk up to be competitive with the big, physical receivers in the NFL who play on the outside. Van Dyke is aware of what he needs to do and made it his goal to come to training camp at 190 pounds.

    If Van Dyke successfully gains a few pounds and if he continues to develop during training camp, he'll figure into the discussion as the starter and probably see time as the slot cornerback against speed receivers. If Van Dyke can't add muscle and struggles in training camp then the Raiders will have to have another young player or scrap the bottom of the barrel to find a veteran.

    Van Dyke will be competing with Chimdi Chekwa and Spencer for the job. 

Chimdi Chekwa

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    How He Was Acquired: Round 4, Pick 113, 2011 NFL Draft

    2011 Role: Backup

    2012 Role: Backup

    Chimdi Chekwa will be given the opportunity to compete for the starting job during training camp, but he's not expected to win the job over Spencer, Bartell or Van Dyke. Chekwa had his 2011 season cut short after playing in only four games, with single start against New England.

    It's worth noting that the Raiders went with Chekwa over Van Dyke as the starter in Week 4 after Chris Johnson was injured, but a new scheme and new coaching staff are likely to see the players much differently. Although it was a blowout loss, Chekwa played reasonably well in his debut. Hopefully that is something Chekwa can use as a springboard into 2012.

    If Chekwa has a great training camp, he can certainly put himself into the rotation at cornerback and at least establish himself as a key reserve. Reggie McKenzie obviously felt comfortable enough with Chewka and Van Dyke that he didn't bring in any more depth at the position. 


Brandon Underwood

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    How He Was: Signed one-year, $540,000 contract.

    2011 Role: N/A

    2012 Role: Reserve

    After two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Brandon Underwood was released prior to the 2011 season. Underwood was attempting a conversion to safety, but a knee injury kept him from earning a roster spot.

    Underwood has had multiple off-the-field incidents that likely contributed to the Packers running out of patience with Underwood, but he's a talented young player that has a chance to make the roster and contribute in 2012.

    It's unclear if Underwood will be used primarily as a cornerback or also at the safety position, but he's got a chance to compete for a backup job at both positions. McKenzie is giving Underwood his second chance and betting that his off-the-field incidents are behind him.

    Underwood has a decent chance to make the roster as a reserve and also contribute on special teams.

Conroy Black

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    How He Was Acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent, 2012

    2011 Role: N/A

    2012 Role: Practice Squad

    Black is a speedy cornerback prospect that transferred to Utah two years ago.

    He impressed at his pro day and reportedly ran in the sub-4.4, 40-yard dash and did well in the other drills. The Raiders brought Black in to compete, but he's likely too raw to contribute in 2012 and a prime candidate for the practice squad.

    Black has all the tools necessary to compete at the NFL level, but he'll have to get stronger and develop his coverage skills in order to make an impact.

Bryan McCann

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    How Acquired: Signed as free agent, 2011

    2011 Role: Kick Returner & Reserve

    2012 Role: TBD

    Jacoby Ford missed time in 2011 with an injury and the Raiders were losing cornerbacks to injury seemingly every week. McCann was signed to take Chekwa's roster spot and immediately contributed as the team's primary kick returner.

    McCann returned 13 kicks, 10 going for more than 20 yards, and had a 91-yard kickoff return to open the game in Kansas City. Unfortunately for McCann, he'll have to make it as a reserve cornerback as long as Ford is still healthy.

    There are those that think McCann has the prerequisite skills to be a solid reserve cornerback, but he'll need to prove that he can contribute as something more than a returner in 2012.

Pat Lee

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    How He Was Acquired: Signed as free agent, 2012

    2011 Role: Special Teams

    2012 Role: Special Teams

    Rock Cartwright was the special teams captain for the Raiders in 2011 and also the gunner on kickoffs. Cartwright signed in San Francisco and the Raiders decided to sign another ex-packer in Pat Lee to replace him.

    Lee was a bust for the Packers because he was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft as a cornerback and has only started one game in his career.

    Lee missed all of 2009 and most of 2008 due to injuries, and never got back on track as a cornerback, but he's a good player on special teams and obviously has some talent or the Packers would have never drafted him.

    The Raiders might be forced to keep Lee on the final roster unless they can find a younger player that can contribute as effectively on special teams. 

Terrail Lambert

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    How He Was Acquired: Signed as free agent, 2012

    2011 Role: N/A

    2012 Role: N/A

    According to Rotoworld.com, Lambert has been with the Colts, Rams, Dolphins and Saints since he entered the league in 2009. There's obviously something that are attracting teams and it could be Lambert's elite speed. He ran a 4.37 and 4.36 second 40-yard dash at his pro day.

    The depth of the Raiders secondary could open the door for long-shot players like Lambert. All it would take is an injury to one or more players and a strong training camp.