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The draft process that led Raiders to Nate Hobbs

Updated September 8, 2021 - 3:50 pm

It wasn’t as if the Raiders had a low grade on Nate Hobbs as they were stacking their 2021 draft board. But something wasn’t sitting well with a team scout after watching Hobbs work out at Illinois’ pro day last March.

Nolan Nawrocki was at Illinois to evaluate Hobbs, a cornerback prospect who first landed on the Raiders’ radar at the behest of area scout Kyle Caballero. It was Caballero who first alerted the Raiders that Hobbs was a player of interest. Nawrocki was now getting a closer look.

Hobbs excelled in the workout, blazing a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and producing a 41-inch vertical leap. The test numbers, coupled with his efficient game tape, suggested the grade the Raiders had given the young cornerback was too low.

Not willing to let the discrepancy slide, Nawrocki called general manager Mike Mayock with a not-so-subtle request.

“Mike, do me a favor and get your eyes on Nate Hobbs” is how Mayock remembered the conversation going.

The events that unfolded next offer a peek into the synergy between Mayock’s staff and that of head coach Jon Gruden, including new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and his assistant coaches.

It created an unlikely path that led the Raiders to draft Hobbs, who will make his debut on Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens as the Raiders’ starting slot cornerback.

None of which would have happened had a heady Raiders scout simply been satisfied with the status quo, or Mayock didn’t heed the scout’s suggestion to take a deeper dive into Hobbs and not immediately take the new information to the Raiders’ coaching staff.

“This is kind of what I think scouting is all about,” Mayock said. “And in our building, where the coaches are so involved, it’s even a better story.”

As soon as Mayock wrapped up the call with Nawrocki, he loaded up game footage of Hobbs, a formerly unheralded high school recruit from Louisville who was a late addition to Lovie Smith’s 2017 Illinois recruiting class.

Always the underdog, Hobbs pushed his way past more acclaimed prospects to become a three-year starter and one of the most physical defensive backs in the rugged Big Ten conference. In the process, he planted himself on the NFL draft radar.

But as the Raiders’ draft grade showed — and it mirrored the consensus around the league — Hobbs wasn’t exactly making a run up the draft board.

As Mayock settled in to watch tape of Hobbs, it was obvious people were overlooking him.

“He tackles. He’s tough,” Mayock remembers thinking. “He’s a three-year starter in the Big Ten. This was a hard-nosed, tough guy. And he just ran 4.45 and jumped 41 inches.”

Mayock was almost startled when he eventually looked at the clock. “I spent about two hours watching him,” Mayock said.

The setup at the Raiders’ facility puts Mayock and the scouting staff on one floor and Gruden and his staff on another. The coaching staff works closely with Mayock and his staff in identifying the skill sets, traits and characteristics players need to excel in their specific schemes.

“Every building is different,” Mayock said. “Trust me, I spent 18 years at the NFL Network being in all the buildings, and everybody does their jobs differently. We’re a coach-driven building with our scouts.”

Mayock remembers sprinting out of his office to go find new Raiders secondary coach Ron Milus, Bradley’s highly-regarded assistant noted for his long track record of identifying and developing top-notch NFL secondary players.

Milus is also a no-nonsense, brutally honest sounding board. In other words, the perfect go-to for Mayock to either verify or shoot down his growing admiration for Hobbs.

“Milo, get your eye on this guy, please,” Mayock told Milus. “And tell me what you think. Today.”

An hour-and-a-half later, Milus reported back to Mayock with a satisfied look.

“We got something,” Milus told Mayock, informing him that the toughness, quickness and aggressiveness Hobbs displayed made him a perfect candidate to transition from outside cornerback to the slot.

“So all of a sudden now we kind of push him up the board a little bit more,” Mayock said. “The coaches like him. The scouts like him.”

Not long after, the Raiders did a Zoom call with Hobbs in which they pushed him mentally by throwing all sorts of Raiders’ verbiage and concepts at him. The challenge was to see how quickly Hobbs could digest the information and spit it back at them, intricacies and all.

“He knocked it out the park,” Mayock said. “He got all the concepts immediately. I was on the Zoom call, I saw. It wasn’t like I heard about it; I was on the call. He got all the concepts. The coaches drilled him. He got an A+ on that drill.”

The trick at that point was to figure out where Hobbs stacked up across the rest of the NFL, and then slot him in a position in the draft that wasn’t overly aggressive but also protected the Raiders from another club swooping in and stealing him.

The Raiders selected Hobbs in the fifth round, with the 167th pick. He was generally regarded by draft sites as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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