Suddenly, Trayvon Mullen is on the spot.
The rookie cornerback no longer has the luxury of slowly adapting to the higher-level play in the NFL, a few snaps at a time. Beginning Sunday in Houston, the second-round pick from Clemson will be thrust into the starting lineup – and he may be charged much of the time with covering one of the league’s best receivers in DeAndre Hopkins.
With former starting corner Gareon Conley traded away this week (to the same Texans), the Raiders will give Mullen, Nevin Lawson, Keisean Nixon and Isaiah Johnson opportunities to show what they can do for the remaining 10 games.
First up will be Mullen, with the others waiting on deck, either for situational snaps Sunday or when they return from injury.
But Mullen hasn’t taken the NFL by storm. It’s been a rough adjustment period from being a standout at Clemson to getting burned and learning some lessons at the start of this season, especially in his season debut vs. the Broncos. As Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com noted this week, Mullen played almost a third of defensive snaps in the first three games, but played just 7 percent of snaps the past three, the result of less-than-stellar play earlier.
But head coach Jon Gruden says Mullen has been working hard and showing improvement in practice. Now he gets to put that work on display.
How will he do?
"I think he’s going to be fine, I do," Gruden told Gutierrez. "I think he’s going to be challenged, I know that, but I think his makeup is perfect. I think he’s a very confident, well-prepared kid. We’ll get what we deserve at every position, including corner. I know he’s going to be tested and I’m anxious to see him compete."
Hopkins is tied for third in the league in catches, with 49, for 508 yards and three touchdowns, catching passes from former Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (a former Mullen teammate). Hopkins is in his seventh season and is coming off a career year in 2018, when he caught 115 passes for 1,572 yards and 11 TDs.
Mullen says he was overeager when the season began, trying to make big plays. Now, he’s focusing on being smart, patient and sticking with his fundamentals and instincts.
"Just settle in and play football," he said. "Been doing it my whole life."
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes Mullen is ready, but if Mullen falters, the other corners will get the call.
"Right now, Mullen is doing most of the work, but we got plenty of guys that can play," Guenther told reporters midweek. "But we’ll roll some guys throughout the the course of the game for sure."
The 3-3 Raiders and 4-3 Texans are set to kick off at 1:25 p.m. Houston is listed as a 7-point favorite.