Trayvon Mullen becoming shutdown corner as Raiders push for playoffs


ALAMEDA -- "I know the type of player I am. How good I am." 

Those were the words of Trayvon Mullen after Emmanuel Sanders, then with the Denver Broncos, gave the rookie a crash course during his NFL debut in Week 1 when Mullen surrendered three catches and a touchdown in the Raiders' win at the Coliseum. 

The Clemson product was given the starting job in Week 8 after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley, and he has rewarded coach Jon Gruden's faith in him. The talent was undeniable with Mullen. Turn on the film and you'd see that. But growing pains are expected at the NFL level. 

Most thought Mullen would be picked on during his first outing as a starter in Week 8 against the Texans. Former college teammate Deshaun Watson knew better, as Mullen rarely was targeted and dropped a pick-six during the first quarter. 

Mullen has looked more and more like a lockdown corner each week, and he put it all together in the Raiders' Week 11 win over the Bengals. He gave up four receptions, but also had a pass break up, the game-clinching interception and a 91.7 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus which led all cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of his team's snaps in Week 11. 

The 22-year-old's dominance comes from a comfort standpoint he has both within defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's scheme and in his own elite abilities. 

"It's just going out there playing aggressive," Mullen told NBC Sports Bay Area after the Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. "Knowing our defense, what I can do and what I cannot do. I think that's the best. You can just go out there and play free once you know what to do."

Trading Conley shocked some. He was a first-round pick with a ton of talent, and it might have felt early for the Raiders to give up on him. It is clear now that Mullen's talent and work ethic might have forced the Raiders' hand. 

Back in training camp, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock claimed Mullen would be competing for a starting spot. It seemed like an odd claim, considering the Raiders already had Conley and Daryl Worley and that cornerbacks rarely come off the field. 

One week into camp it was clear Mullen, who the Raiders were giddy to draft with the No. 40 overall pick this spring, was the real deal. He has elite coverage skills, plays the run game well, is a good tackler and understands what he's supposed to do inside the defensive scheme. 

"He's done a really great job for us," Guenther said this week. "It's been a great move. He's looked good in the practice field, he's done good in the games. He's got a couple technique things to clean up. He's on his guy and that's all you can ask for. He's been tackling in the run game, he understands the run game and it's not too big for him. He played in a lot of big games at Clemson, so he's going to be a great player for years to come."

When the Raiders made the move to open the door for Mullen to shine, they were 3-3 and on the fringe of the playoff picture. They now sit at 6-4 after winning three straight games, capped off by Mullen's game-clinching interception against the Bengals. 

The games will mean more now, as the Raiders turn their attention to clinching their second playoff berth since 2002. Some teams might worry about having a rookie cornerback in the big games down the stretch. That won't concern the Raiders with Mullen. He lived in a fishbowl of big games at Clemson and notched a key interception of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the Tigers' 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game win. 

Mullen is ready for the bright lights. He is making the most of the opportunity given to him, showing the shutdown ability many believed he had. He has become one of the standouts of a rookie class that has been one of the best in recent NFL history. A rookie class with big dreams for the Silver and Black. 

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More tests await and Mullen still has some growing to do in the NFL. Rent is due every day to be great in the NFL and he comes to work with his checkbook in hand.

"I'm just going to continue to get better, each and every week," Mullen said. "I'm going to take advantage of my opportunities and when it's my time, I'm going to make plays."

Mullen has starred on every field he has ever stepped on. It appears the NFL will be no different. 

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