ALAMEDA, Calif. — Lester Hayes is what Star Wars fans would call a light-side user — a peaceful and eternal optimist.
After all, the iconic former Raiders cornerback, a self-styled Jedi Knight of Silver and Blackdom, even felt the good, so to speak, in the game of D.J. Hayden, giving the 2013 first-round draft pick rave reviews … before he flamed out.
Same with Gareon Conley, the Raiders’ first-rounder in 2017 who was traded to Houston on Oct. 21, six days before the Raiders faced the Texans.
Now? With the Las Vegas Raiders having revamped their cornerback room this offseason with the additions of first-round pick Damon Arnette, fourth-round slot man Amik Robertson and veteran free agent Prince Amukamara, Hayes has felt a certain tremor in the force.
“I do because of who their technique coach is,” Hayes told ESPN.com, referring to Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil. “He knows his stuff. I was impressed. I was having flashbacks of when I met No. 24 for the first time, Willie Brown, who taught me my technique.
“Coach O’Neil is not a basic-thinking DB coach … he can teach technique, and I like that. It’s not basics. It gives a young player confidence. That’s key. But this takes sweat. You do not get it through osmosis. You have to train seven days a week, and then you shine your technique with sweat.”
Something had to change at corner, and getting more aggressive on the outside and in the slot is a start. Consider: The Raiders had just nine interceptions last season, which ranked 29th in the NFL. Just three of those picks were authored by a cornerback, as Conley, Trayvon Mullen and Daryl Worley each had one. Only three teams had fewer than three picks by players listed as cornerbacks last season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Hayes had 13 in 1980, when he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year for the Super Bowl XV champions. He had 14 more picks over the next six seasons and finished tied with Brown for most interceptions in franchise history, with 39.
“Mike Haynes and Deion Sanders are the two greatest cornerbacks of all time,” Hayes said. “But you must have pressure from a four-man pass rush. You must have sack savages. I had Lyle Alzado, Howie Long, Greg Townsend, Ted Hendricks. I was getting picks and tipped balls because I had pressure up front.
“You could be the greatest bump-and-run cornerback of all time and play for a team that is 4-12, based on the fact that you do not have sack savages. It’s about teammates.”
This is a different era, no doubt, but getting more physical at corner was an offseason goal for the Raiders, especially with rookie defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell getting 10 and 4.5 sacks, respectively.
“More physical,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden told ESPN.com. “Faster, better, deeper in the whole secondary is what we’re after.”
Enter the trio of Arnette, Robertson and Amukamara, a nine-year vet who was a first-round pick of the New York Giants, owns a Super Bowl ring, has 10 career picks and has started 99 regular-season games.
Look at it this way: The Raiders ended last season with five corners on their 53-man roster in Mullen, Worley, Isaiah Johnson, Nevin Lawson and Keisean Nixon — and Worley was allowed to walk in free agency. So adding three more high-profile corners to the mix (that’s not counting the likes of Madre Harper, D.J. Killings, Dylan Mabin, Jordan Brown and Ken Crawley, all of whom are also on the 90-man roster) will ramp up competition.
That’s the plan for the Raiders, along with getting more athletic and versatile.
Arnette, a big corner at 6-foot, 195 pounds, had five interceptions in four seasons at Ohio State, and the diminutive Robertson, all 5-foot-9, 183 pounds of him, had 14 picks in three years at Louisiana Tech.
“We think Arnette is one of the toughest kids in the draft at any position,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “You find a corner with his instincts and toughness. We love him. We thought he was a special football player. We think he’ll come in day one, and he’s going to compete. We expect him to compete for a starting job.
“[Robertson is] always around the football. He’s an instinctual kid, and he’s not afraid to go make a play. I think that’s underrated — he’s looking to make plays. It’s interesting because when he gets beat occasionally, it’s because he’s trying to make plays. We need to get much better at taking the football away on defense. This is the kind of kid who thrives on that. So I think that’s been a point of focus.”
Amukamara, who turns 31 on June 6, does more than raise the experience level of a cornerback room that was more “romper,” with an average age of 23, than raucous. He likes the Raiders’ tradition of playing in-your-face defense and likes how defensive coordinator Paul Guenther prefers to scheme opponents.
“You can see the guys are aggressive, and he likes for his guys to press, and I think that’s where I flourish,” Amukamara told Raiders.com. “I’m one of, if not the best, corners in press, man-to-man coverage in the league, and I have the tape to show that, which is why I’m saying that so boldly.”
Hayes, who called the late Brown the “Yoda” of the bump-and-run, is absolutely giddy. When it comes to the Raiders’ revamped cornerback room, do or do not. There is no try.
“When I met No. 24, I moved beyond Jedi and became a Jedi Knight,” Hayes said with a laugh.
“Psychological stimuli is very important, and [Amukamara] has the most important factor: betting on himself. Confidence spreads to the young cornerbacks. It spreads. I like it.”
And maybe, just maybe, the force will be with the young and rebranded Raiders cornerbacks.