Updated June 6, 2021 - 6:11 pm
Based on age and NFL service, the elder statesman of the Raiders’ secondary is 31-year-old Casey Hayward.
But as 23-year-old cornerback Trayvon Mullen prepares for his third year with the Raiders, his 26 consecutive starts are by far the most among a young group of defensive backs. And of all the secondary players, he might be in the best position to have a breakthrough season.
“I feel like I’m better than ever,” Mullen said.
And at the moment, he represents the only level of certainty and continuity in a secondary that will look decidedly different in scheme and personnel.
With Hayward and Damon Arnette bidding to win the cornerback job opposite Mullen, an open audition unfolding at slot cornerback and no official declaration on the two starting safeties, Mullen is the rare sliver of certitude.
The Raiders are cautiously optimistic that they have the manpower and leadership to lift the secondary to a level of dependability that has eluded them in the past few years. They also are hoping that a retooled front seven will help with that improvement.
It starts with mastering new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s system, a process that began during organized team activities.
“I trained hard this offseason. I’m still going hard, learning this new system, helping the young guys,” Mullen said. “Being around the young guys is helping me get even better. Being accountable of a lot of things. Trying to be that leader for the younger guys.”
A combination of youth, injuries, a dearth of talent and a breakdown in messaging from the previous coaching staff left the Raiders defense in disarray the past two seasons. The issues touched all three levels, but the secondary was especially conspicuous in its breakdowns and failures.
Among Raiders starters, not one defensive back ranked in the top 68 at his position last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And while Mullen provided flashes of the ability that made him a second-round pick in 2019, he was 82nd among the 121 cornerbacks under consideration.
In Mullen’s case, there is an argument to be made that the Raiders’ anemic pass rush and the manner in which he was used under former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther affected his performance. He also played through injuries.
Still, Mullen was one of the few Raiders defenders who offered consistency each week. And the glimpses he showed of high-level competency offer hope that Bradley can push him to another level.
Part of that process is predicated on Bradley building a bond between his players. Too often last season the secondary appeared disconnected, an issue that appeared to stem from uncertainty or skepticism in what players were being asked to do.
Mullen already notices a difference in how Bradley is creating a level of trust.
“Just the way he is as a person,” Mullen said. “He cares about a lot more than just football, and he wants guys to be a part of each other, be a team, learn together. He’s going to put us in the best positions, he’s going to give us the best calls. We just got to go out there and play together.”
Trayvon Mullen file