The Raiders have learned a lot about their secondary over the past couple of seasons, finding unexpected depth in their safety rotation. Hiram Eugene actually served as the Raiders’ starting free safety over the last half of the 2008 season while Tom Cable was challenging Michael Huff to be a better tackler by demoting him to special teams. The emergence of Stevie Brown as a rookie seventh round pick in 2010 was unexpected from a guy who was cut from the roster to begin the season. But with Brown’s play and having Eugene as depth has the Raiders wondering if they are okay to move on from the Huff experiment.
SS Tyvon Branch
After making it look as though Branch was on the path to becoming a solid starter at this position in 2009, he had a bit of a setback this year. He was burned for a few long pass plays and the Raiders safeties weren’t exactly beasts against the run. Some will point to the play against Chris Johnson in week one where Branch was juked out of his cleats — the play which basically set the tone for what was an up and down year for Branch.
The Raiders will probably not be moving Branch to the free safety position because the team needs someone who is good in coverage to play that spot in their scheme. Branch has shown good leadership skills as well as having a nose for the ball on runs. He needs to work on finishing the play and sticking closer to his guys’ hip pocket in coverage — something that should come naturally to a player who played cornerback for all or most of his college career.
FS Michael Huff
Huff has shown marked improvement as he attempts to show that he is the player the Raiders thought they drafted. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been able to convince many folks that he is playing the right position in the NFL. Huff has poor tackling technique and often goes too high on a guy. It’s a wonder he doesn’t get more penalties for going at a guy’s head.
Huff didn’t miss as many tackles in 2010 as he did in 2009, but he didn’t do anything that would make me want to vote him into the Pro Bowl, either. You should expect from a high draft pick at this point in their career to look like they totally get it. Huff looks like he gets it, but he is afraid to get after it. I’m kind of thinking that the Raiders and Huff aren’t going to be close on money, similar to the Robert Gallery situation. Time will tell if my gut is right or not.
FS Hiram Eugene
Eugene is a free agent this year and it remains to be seen what exactly the Raiders want to do with him. As I mentioned before, Eugene is a player who adds good depth at his position with his solid experience not only on special teams, but also in the starting lineup. Eugene was the player who took over for Huff. He did a decent job, and it was hard to notice that Huff was gone. Unlike Huff, Eugene is a solid tackler. He hasn’t really had enough time playing at free safety for me to accurately judge whether or not he could become a full time starter, but it does not bode well for him that he was sort of replaced by rookie Stevie Brown this year as Huff’s backup.
FS Stevie Brown
Brown is a project player for the Oakland Raiders. One thing you can already tell about the kid is that he plays with an awful lot of heart. What I see from Brown is some serious potential to be a play maker. My initial prognosis following his rookie year is that he is a smart player with good vision who knows how to get off blocks and make nice open field tackles. He looks like he has the potential to make players around him better, but it is way too early to start putting that kind of pressure on him full time. With a year working out during the offseason and the opportunity to improve himself as a player, Brown may turn out to be really good for the Raiders.
SS Mike Mitchell
Since becoming a bigger gasp on draft day than the pick of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Mitchell has earned himself the nickname “Missile” from Raider Nation. Mitchell started to see extended playing time in the second half of his rookie season and earned a starting role in the Raiders’ “Big Nickel” package in 2010. Now he has people wondering what his role will be if Michael Huff makes his departure from Silver and Black. Will Mitchell become the most fearsome Raider safety since his mentor, Jack Tatum? Mitchell could become a figure in the free safety conversation because of his better than average man coverage on Antonio Gates in 2010 which helped the Raiders sweep the Chargers in their divisional series last year.
SS Jerome Boyd
Boyd has had an on again off again relationship with the organization thus far in his career. He made a nice interception and returned it for a touchdown in a preseason game for the Raiders in 2010. His decent play in the preseason overall made me wholeheartedly believe he would make the team, but clearly the Raiders didn’t think the former undrafted Oregon Ducks’ safety was still a few steps away from making an NFL club. Other NFL teams felt the same way and Boyd spent the 2010 season on the free agent wire. The Raiders brought him back onto the roster just recently to have an extra body during offseason workouts.
The Raiders are not hurting for help at the safety position. Their biggest battle in deciphering the group will be figuring out who belongs in what spot in the defense. It will be interesting to watch the battles for roster spots and starting gigs develop over the course of the offseason and later on in the preseason.
Roster status: Moderate
See position analyses: