The offseason decision by the Raiders to trust their young cornerbacks rather than bring in veteran reinforcements faces an early test.
If TJ Carrie, DJ Hayden and crew can neutralize A.J. Green and the Cincinnati Bengals passing game in the season opener today, it will be a form of validation for the players and franchise.
If, on the other hand, Green lights it up at the Coliseum, the questions about that decision will only grow louder.
It’s a burden that Carrie and the other young cornerbacks understand well.
“They entrusted a lot of belief in us as a younger group,” Carrie said. “We’ll have to prove ourselves every week. We have to show teams we may be young, but we’re still capable of playing in this league.”
There is little evidence up to this point to show that’s true.
The five cornerbacks on the roster have combined for just 15 career starts, led by Hayden’s 10 over the past two years. Carrie made four starts as a rookie and Keith McGill started just one game. Neiko Thorpe has only played in a reserve role and Dexter McDonald is a rookie.
But despite the lack of a track record, the Raiders passed on the chance to sign veteran cornerbacks in free agency, as they had done in general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first three seasons, to focus on the young players.
“If you look at all the options available on our approach, in our estimation, developing our guys was the best approach,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “We’ve had a good camp with our guys. We’re prepared for the regular season and we’re looking forward to seeing what they have for us.”
They should find out quickly against the Bengals.
Green is one of the most accomplished receivers in the league with his 329 catches ranking third all-time for players in their first four seasons. Throw in Mohamed Sanu and a healthy Marvin Jones and the Raiders know they will be in for quite a test on Sunday.
“People around the league are doubting us and looking down at us,” Hayden said. “They’re going to come after us. We just have to do our thing and make plays.”
This group has struggled to do that so far in their careers. Carrie was one of the few bright spots last season as a seventh-round rookie, allowing only one touchdown pass all season.
Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013, hasn’t been nearly as good so far in his career in part because injuries have limited him to 18 games and slowed his development. Hayden has struggled when he has played, allowing nine TD passes on 97 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
McGill and Thorpe will be the first two options in substitution packages but both have little experience. McGill played mostly special teams as a rookie, while Thorpe has played only 87 defensive plays in two seasons with Oakland and Kansas City.
One of those players will need to match up this week against Green.
“We don’t know how good we are until we match up against the best,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “He’s considered to be one of the best. We’re excited for the competition.”