Nate Hobbs ascends from fifth-rounder to Las Vegas Raiders' nickel corner

HENDERSON, Nev. -- In his first real NFL action, Nate Hobbs' blindside sack of Geno Smith shook not only the Seattle Seahawks quarterback to his core, but woke up the entire Las Vegas Raiders sideline.

A week later, Hobbs was simply a football player making a play, breaking off his coverage on the right side to track a deep ball mid-flight down the middle and come up with a highlight-reel interception against the Los Angeles Rams. Earlier, he diagnosed a screen play and blew it up for a 4-yard loss. Raiders coach Jon Gruden was so impressed he broke from tradition and awarded a game ball from, yes, an exhibition to Hobbs.

So set was Hobbs' spot on the Raiders' roster that the rookie did not play in the exhibition finale at the San Francisco 49ers. And given veteran Nevin Lawson's two-game suspension to start the season, Hobbs might not give up the starting nickel cornerback job when Lawson is eligible to suit up.

That's how much of a revelation Hobbs was in the offseason program, training camp and preseason, where he played 57 snaps -- 30 in the slot and 27 outside -- and compiled an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 90.7, the highest mark by any non-first rounder in the preseason and the third-highest grade of any rookie, behind Indianapolis Colts defensive end Kwity Paye (94.3) and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (91.0).

Not bad for a fifth-round draft pick, right? Perhaps that's why on draft night Hobbs referred to himself as "the greatest underdog [the Raiders] ever drafted. For real."

None of Hobbs' early success has shocked his college coach at Illinois, Lovie Smith. In fact, Smith was surprised Hobbs lasted as long as he did in the draft and said he was a "football junkie" who should thrive under Gruden.

"I'm not there, but I know nobody is outworking him," said Smith, who's the Houston Texans associate head coach/defensive coordinator, of Hobbs. "I think he's exactly what you're looking for and he's going to play in the league for a long time.

"There's not going to be any days where Jon's going to be, 'Hey, c'mon, Nate, you’re going to have to pick it up.' ... And when you have a skillset like that, and when you can run and jump like that and you like to tackle, there's going to be a lot of flash plays that you're going to see ... they're going to coach him up hard and I'm anxious to see what he's going to do in this league."

Hobbs, who turned 22 in June, carries himself like an old football soul. As Smith put it, Hobbs had to grow up fast. Hobbs said he was 12 years old when his father died and his mother had to raise three children on $25,000 a year. Within the past two years, Hobbs said his grandmother and an uncle, who had become a father figure, also died.

With so much loss at such a young age, Hobbs said that has translated to his playing with more passion and physicality on the field.

"You want tough guys on your football team," Smith said. "And to me, I've always gone by this -- how do you tell if a team is really tough? There are a few positions that will tell you if your team is really tough to me -- when your wide receivers block and when your corners tackle. And Nate definitely can. So I'm sure most coaches would love having a guy like that.

"Nate didn't have a great senior year, but everything was there."

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Hobbs missed three games due to injury last fall, had one interception in five games and the Fighting Illini went 2-6 in the COVID-19-shortened season.

Underdog, though?

Hobbs was not highly recruited out of Louisville Male High School and initially committed to Western Kentucky before flipping to Smith and Illinois.

Being the 167th player drafted is just the latest slight, as he is seen as a key component to help the Raiders' oft-leaky secondary, which also added a second-round free safety in Tre'von Moehrig, to go with strong safety Johnathan Abram, and a veteran free-agent cornerback in Casey Hayward Jr., to pair with Trayvon Mullen Jr on the outside.

"I feel like I'm gaining the coaches' trust and they're trusting me to play multiple spots," Hobbs said. "I'm gaining a lot of knowledge for the game. Nickel is like part linebacker, part DB. Sometimes I have gaps, sometimes I have to be in the fit ... as long as I continue trying to play fast, it will be good."

Like on the interception against the Rams. It was Hobbs' first time playing on the outside in the game.

"I just shuffled," he said. "I saw '1' sit down and '2' kept going up the seam so I just climbed. The type of defense we play, I don't really think it was my play but I was just trying to be a football player. I saw the ball coming out of the quarterback's hand, I ran to the receiver and I looked up. The ball was there so I just grabbed it."

He quickly giggled after describing the interception.

Another reason Hobbs has curried favor with the Raiders -- Gruden said he does not make the same mistake twice, a rarity for a rookie.

"You're going to make mistakes -- I'm a rookie, and I'm a football player," Hobbs said. "Even football players that are not rookies are going to make a mistake in the game. But don't let it be the same one. So, I just try to go about it that way."

"The way my momma raised me, I was raised to be humble. I just try to attack every day and find something I can get better at every day and just watch the vets ... If I'm a professional, I can't keep making the same mistakes."

And for a defense that was oh-so-bad last season, especially the secondary, Las Vegas can use all the help it can get. Or did you miss ESPN NFL analyst Marcus Spears' breakdown?

"When you look at how they played defense, and the plays they gave up on the back end ... it was at times where I thought the Raiders was point shaving," Spears said. "I ain't know what the hell they was doing defensively. It felt like they didn't even realize you could throw the football in the NFL with how bad they were on the back end."

Now, this is not to suggest Hobbs is the be-all and end-all. The Raiders have addressed the secondary ad nauseum the past three drafts, selecting cornerbacks Mullen, Isaiah Johnson (waived on Aug. 31), Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson and Hobbs as well as safeties Abram, Moehrig and Tyree Gillespie.

"I'm fired up about the secondary," Gruden said at the start of camp. "It should be a strength of ours. If it isn't, we've made some real mistakes."

Stay tuned. Especially with Hobbs starting to blossom.