Switching to Corner is Merely Michael Huff’s Latest Challenge

Huff imagines himself at cornerback (NFL.com)

Versatility is a major boon in the workforce.  Look at Tim Tebow, who plays fullback and punt coverage, which earns his NFL salary.  As for Oakland Raiders free safety Michael Huff, he is accustomed to shifting positions around the secondary.  Due to injuries to the team’s starting corners, Huff made an emergency start at right cornerback on Sunday.  We’ll see this for a while because the NFL veteran should emerge as the best cover corner in the Silver and Black.

Unfortunately, claiming Huff to be the best defender in Oakland’s secondary is like a quadruple amputee favoring their right forearm.  The backside of the Raiders’ defense is crippled indefinitely, and the former Longhorn himself has been an NFL disappointment.  Huff was drafted 7th overall in 2006 after running a dazzling 4.34 40 time and bench pressing 21 reps at the combine, but he has failed to transfer his dominant play from Texas.  By 2008, the safety was benched for numerous blown coverages and missed tackles.

But Huff has had a harder transition to the pros than a player like Troy Polumalu, whose role was defined from the get-go.  Huff’s initial station was strong safety, where he started as a rookie.  While his instincts and recovery speed were a plus at the job, his horrendous run stopping led to the free safety move the following year.

When Huff awoke from his benching in 2009, he focused his aggressiveness and recorded a career high 3 interceptions and 14 pass deflections.  In 2010, the Raider was named 2nd team NFL All Pro, collecting a career high 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 picks and 3 forced fumbles.

Huff has natural instincts for the ball (Associated Press)

Oakland retained Huff with a 4 year, $32 million contract when the season ended.  The safety’s impact regressed as he battled concussion symptoms, and he restructured his bonus in 2012 to remain with the team.  His loyalty has made the switch to cornerback a non-haggling ordeal.

This was a not a spur-of-the-moment, let’s-go-on-a-road-trip-to-Canada sort of decision by Oakland’s management.  Huff dabbled with playing corner in high school and college.  With the Raiders, he has lined up across slot receivers in nickel packages.  Huff boasted at practice, “It’s not really a difference (playing cornerback) because during one-on-ones, I do everything with the corners…”  Considering his speed, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

And neither should his amateur performance against the Steelers, his first start on the island as a pro.  Huff’s tackling was typically inconsistent, and he made a few air-headed choices.  The worst came on a 3rd and 2 in the 1st quarter when the veteran backpedaled 12(!) yards from the line of scrimmage, resulting in a bubble screen to Emmanuel Sanders and a fresh set of downs.  Huff’s primary opponent, Mike Wallace, worked his best game of the season mostly at the defensive back’s expense.

The biggest encouraging sign lining Huff out wide occurred in the 3rd quarter.  After getting fooled on a curl route earlier in the drive, the 7 year NFL warrior used his strength to bump Antonio Brown off his route and disrupt the timing of his 10 yard hitch.  The Steelers eventually scored, but Raiders coach Dennis Allen was encouraged by what he saw.  Post-victory, Allen said, “(Huff) held up pretty decent…on the edge.”

In time, Huff can use his physical tools to keep stride with the NFL’s number one receivers.  Blitzing is also the veteran’s finest skill, so if defensive coordinator Jason Tarvar finally raises the heat, the former first rounder will wreak havoc in the backfield.  With Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer out for a month at minimum, we should have a better understanding of Huff’s qualifications at cornerback.  Based on the results of his last position switch, he may have to sink before he rises to the call.

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