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Trio of Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs head into a make-or-break 2022 season

Moe Moton

The past couple of Las Vegas Raiders regimes have whiffed on multiple early-round draft picks for the secondary. Let’s go back six years. Karl Joseph, Gareon Conley, Obi Melifonwu and Damon Arnette didn’t sign a second contract with the Silver and Black. Three of them didn’t make it through their third season.

Going into 2022, the Raiders have three defensive backs with a lot on the line. They all have uncertain futures going into contract years, which makes the upcoming campaign a make-or-break term for a trio of fourth-year pros.

Related: Las Vegas Raiders training camp – Schedule, tickets, location, and everything to know

As rookies, safety Tre’von Moehrig and slot cornerback Nate Hobbs showed promise, but if the Las Vegas Raiders’ key veterans struggle, they may have to look for replacements in free agency next offseason to complement the youth on the back end of the defense.

Will Johnathan Abram hold on to the starting safety job?

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Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Johnathan Abram has battled injuries and become a liability in coverage against pass-heavy offenses. He’s allowed a passer rating of at least 111.4 in 2020 and 2021 along with seven touchdowns between the two terms.

Suiting up for 28 out of 49 possible games, Abram also needs to take care of his body on the field. He’s missed significant time with shoulder injuries that required surgeries in 2019 and 2021.

The Raiders didn’t pick up Abram’s fifth-year option, so if he’s not up to par in new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme, the high-energy safety will likely play for another squad in 2023. Though he’s a fan favorite who wears the iconic No. 24 for the franchise, Abram stands on the unsure ground with savvy veteran safety Duron Harmon on the roster.

In January, Harmon turned 31 years old, but he’s an experienced starter who can provide quality snaps in two-high safety looks. As a position coach, Graham became familiar with him in New England between 2013 and 2015.

Abram could extend his tenure with the Raiders, but his availability and coverage skills (or lack thereof) will likely determine his fate.

Is Trayvon Mullen Jr. a long-term answer at cornerback?

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Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Trayvon Mullen played in every game through his first two seasons, recording 24 pass breakups and three interceptions. Based on those numbers, he’s worth a second deal, but if we look a little deeper, you’ll notice the 2019 second-rounder had some coverage lapses in 2020.

As a rookie, Mullen allowed a 55.9 percent completion rate, two touchdowns, and a 78.3 passer rating in coverage through 16 outings (10 starts). In his second term, he permitted a 62.1 percent completion rate, five touchdowns, and a 93.1 passer rating in coverage as a full-time starter in every contest.

Last year, Mullen had an incomplete campaign with only five appearances because of foot/toe injuries. He allowed a 62.5 percent completion rate, a touchdown, and an 84.2 passer rating.

This offseason, Mullen underwent surgery on his foot, but he downplayed the severity of the procedure. For now, the 24-year-old is the best cover man on the roster, so expect him to reclaim his starting job once he’s back on the field.

However, Mullen will play for another contract. If he turns in a string of subpar or mediocre performances, general manager Dave Ziegler, who didn’t invest a second-round pick in Clemson product, may weigh his options on the open market next offseason.

Coming off an injury-riddled year with decent numbers from 2020, Mullen needs to put his stamp on the 2022 season to secure a spot on the roster next year. He has the potential to do it, but his new defensive coordinator and the general manager won’t reward him for his play from two-to-three years ago. In the NFL, decision-makers focus on what you have done lately—not back then.

Can Rock Ya-Sin correct his flaws and play up to his potential?

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Credit: USA Today Network

In a trade deal with the Indianapolis Colts, the Las Vegas Raiders acquired Rock Ya-Sin in exchange for edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who led the Silver and Black in sacks with 10 last year.

Clearly, the Raiders believe Ya-Sin can provide immediate help on the back end, though he has some inconsistencies in his track record with the Colts.

Ya-Sin floated between starter and backup roles over the past two years. Former Colts cornerback coach James Rowe pointed out a correctable flaw in the cornerback’s technique last offseason (h/t Kevin Bowen of 107.5 The Fan).

“One of the main things that we are probably going to work on the most is hand placement. Sometimes he gets his hands a little high on wide receivers, causing them to tug a couple times. That’s something we can correct. And then just getting used to playing the ball better. And feeling more comfortable out there. I think he has all the ability in the world. I think he’s going to be really good in this league. You face tough wide receivers. It’s tough out there. It’s a tough position.”

With Xavier Rhodes and Kenny Moore II on the roster, Ya-Sin had to compete for the third spot. Former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who’s now the Chicago Bears head coach, publicly challenged him with some comments about the pecking order among the cornerbacks last year.

“Rock Ya-Sin has done a really great job of being here,” Eberflus said. “He got injured last year at the end of the season and he stayed around and got himself healthy. We like where he is. He knows it’s an open competition and he knows what he has to do and how he has to do it.”

In 2022, Ya-Sin started in eight out of 13 games, recording eight pass breakups while allowing a 53.3 percent completion rate, three touchdowns, and an 88.8 passer rating in coverage. He had a decent year, but the Raiders need him to put it all together as a full-time starter, or else Anthony Averett could push for snaps on the boundary after his solid 2021 campaign with the Baltimore Ravens.

As a 2019 second-rounder, Ya-Sin has one year to boost his market value before he hits free agency next offseason.

If Mullen and Ya-Sin play at a high level in 2022, the Las Vegas Raiders may only have the cap space to retain one of them in the offseason, but they would rather make that tough decision than look to replace both boundary cornerbacks.

Right now, it’s safe to bet on Moehrig and Hobbs to stick around for another year, but the Raiders have short-term question marks at the other three spots in the secondary with Abram, Mullen and Ya-Sin set to become free agents in 2023.

Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.