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Breon Borders proves worth as Raiders’ nickel cornerback

NAPA, Calif. — A time will come — and ideally, it will soon — when the rookie the Raiders are relying upon in their starting defense is Gareon Conley. He is the big name. He is the first-round pick.

For now, it is Breon Borders’ time.

He is making a name for himself.

Borders, an undrafted rookie from Duke, worked Tuesday with the Raiders’ first-team defense for the fourth straight practice. His focus has been nickel cornerback, manning the slot while Conley fends off shin splits and TJ Carrie replaces underperforming Sean Smith at boundary corner.

While outside factors have influenced his workload, Borders isn’t merely the benefactor of circumstance.

He earned this.

“Some guys just come in with a serious, no-nonsense approach to their game and their preparation,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “He strikes me that way as a guy that’s very conscientious, works very hard. I think Breon is having a nice camp. Obviously, he’s running with the ones right now a little bit. He certainly hasn’t won anything. Things are far from settled.

“He was doing so well against the twos and threes, I wanted to see him against some of the better guys. It’ll give us some good tape to evaluate. I think he’s done a nice job of coming in here and being kind of a serious guy that has some competitive grit to him.”

Borders has proven adaptable, too.

Prior to joining the Raiders, Borders was a three-year starter at Duke who saw time on special teams. He never worked at nickel corner, he said.

The 22-year-old echoed a number of NFL veterans when saying that the nickel position is more difficult than outside cornerback. This largely is because receivers have a two-way go off the line of scrimmage, their route path being less predictable as a result. Slot receivers also tend to be quicker in and out of their route-running breaks.

From college to the NFL. From outside to nickel. Those two transitions would be enough for a rookie.

Borders also has moved from the third- to second- to first-team defense.

“It gets faster,” Borders said of each jump. ‘The physicality is ramped up. It’s just a grind. … Derek Carr, he’s an awesome quarterback. He knows a few of my tendencies. He reads defenses pretty well. It’s a challenge.”

Carr first noticed Borders in the spring.

Veterans are intrigued each offseason to survey the team’s new crop of talent. The largest wave comes in May, as the rookie class integrates with the rest of the 90-man roster during organized team activities. Veterans want to see which players can help them win games or, in some instances, take their jobs.

Early-round selections like Conley and second-round safety Obi Melifonwu generally receive the most attention.

It’s up to an undrafted rookie to earn notice.

“Every time I turn the film on, it’s like he makes a play,” Carr said. “I think that that’s how those guys catch your eye. When you’re an undrafted guy, it’s hard because obviously you’re not going to have the first- or second-team reps all the time, obviously. All that you can see is, ‘Man, who’s 31?’ kind of a thing. And then throughout the offseason and here at camp, he’s really proven himself.

“The more guys that we can have like that, that make plays, I’m all for it.”

More Raiders: Follow all of our Oakland Raiders-to-Las Vegas coverage online at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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