NAPA, Calif. — The Raiders weren’t looking for Curtis Riley.
This offseason, they were intent on signing at least one safety in free agency, given the impending departures of both Week 1 starters, Reggie Nelson and Marcus Gilchrist. The scouting department provided defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil a list of names to evaluate.
Riley wasn’t on it.
So O’Neil began working on the names he had. Along the way, he studied 2018 game tape of New York Giants safety Landon Collins, a two-time Pro Bowler widely considered the best at his position in the 2019 free agent class.
The attention then shifted to a Giants teammate.
“We were looking for a rangy post safety,” O’Neil said. “I watch a game, and Curtis Riley has an interception. I watch a game, he runs … and makes a good tackle. I watch another game, he makes a hell of a stream play, chasing somebody down the field. So I had the front office look him up, and it turns out he was a free agent.”
The Raiders are expected to enter the season with fourth-year veteran Karl Joseph and rookie first-round pick Johnathan Abram as their starting safeties. Quietly, Riley has pushed during training camp for playing time. O’Neil sold the veteran over the phone and during a somewhat awkward March free agency visit, ultimately landing the safety he discovered organically.
In March, the team couldn’t count on landing Riley.
Other clubs, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, were interested. Such is the reality of free agency. A first-, second- or third-priority option can sign elsewhere, leaving a team to commit guaranteed money to a player it might covet less.
Hedging their bets, the Raiders hosted Riley and safety George Iloka for visits.
On the same day.
Riley and Iloka were on the same flight from Atlanta to San Francisco. They didn’t realize they shared a cabin until they shared an airport pickup and lengthy drive to Raiders headquarters in Alameda. The timing, which was necessary given how coaches must balance free agency with cross-country college pro days, worked out in the end.
O’Neil sold Riley, a 16-game starter in 2018, on his fit in the Raiders’ defense. Riley signed a one-year, $810,000 contract that will give him a chance to develop under O’Neil and cash in with a larger contract as a 2020 free agent.
“Me and J.O., from the first day we met, we had a great connection,” Riley said. “He seemed like he had a great plan for me, and he told me all the things I needed to work on, man to man. That was a big factor in me signing here. I know I only played a little bit. Last year was my first real year playing, and I needed to prove myself again.
“J.O. told me he was going to work with me on everything I needed to work on to help me get to where I want to be with a multiyear deal to come back here next year, which I would love to do.”
Riley, 27, has focused on tackling.
He’s worked on footwork and training his eyes to track a ball carrier’s nearer hip. That’s the mental part. There also is a physical element. He entered the NFL as an undrafted cornerback in 2015 with the Tennessee Titans, who switched him to safety. Riley was still at cornerback weight in his first extensive action on defense.
He weighed about 190 pounds last season.
In camp today, he’s around 200 to 205 pounds, he said, without sacrificing his speed and quickness.
“Right now, one of the things we’re looking for is who is our best deep safety,” O’Neil said. “Who’s the guy that is going to play the deep half? Who is the guy that is going to play the post and can read a quarterback and make plays? We call them ‘range plays.’ Who’s got those instincts in the deep part of the field? And he showed those instincts for New York last year. … I’ve been really happy with him.”
Riley’s instincts as a player caught O’Neil’s eye this offseason.
O’Neil’s as a coach led to his signing.