It appears the Raiders have found their safety.
Reggie Nelson, a Pro Bowl pick in 2015 after a standout season with the Cincinnati Bengals, visited Monday with the Raiders and is expected to sign a free-agent deal with Oakland Tuesday, reported Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Nelson is 32 – somewhat older than most of the impact free agents Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has signed over the past two seasons – but is an experienced, ball-hawking safety who would fit into the Oakland secondary as a replacement for the now-retired Charles Woodson. He likely would start opposite another veteran safety, Nate Allen.
Nelson tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions in 2015. In 16 games for a strong Cincinnati defense, Nelson – who will be entering his 10th NFL season – was in on 77 tackles in 2015 and had 14 passes defensed. In 2014, he had four interceptions.
Nelson played six seasons in Cincinnati after playing his first three seasons in Jacksonville – where he played for current Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. Nelson became expendable in Cincinnati because of the emergence of young safeties Shawn Williams and George Iloka.
Though the Raiders had been linked to former Chargers safety Eric Weddle (who signed with Baltimore), Nelson was considered among the best free-agent safeties available this offseason, and recently the analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked him the No. 1 unrestricted free agent still available. Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus wrote that the perfect landing spot for Nelson would be with Oakland. Apparently, the Raiders and Nelson agreed.
Wrote Renner: “Even with a hefty spending spree, the Raiders still have gobs of cap room. The only piece from last year’s squad that they’ve so far been unable to replace is Charles Woodson, and Nelson would go a long way towards dealing with that loss. In terms of coverage grade, Nelson’s 83.6 was only slightly behind Woodson’s league-leading 86.8.”
McKenzie now has added three potentially high-impact players to his defense this offseason in free agency: Nelson, cornerback Sean Smith and outside linebacker/pass rusher Bruce Irvin, while also re-signing linebacker/pass rusher Aldon Smith (who will remain suspended until November).
As Chris Wessling of NFL.com noted Monday, the addition of Nelson also could potentially cure the Raiders’ problems in covering tight ends in 2015. In several games, the Raiders’ secondary was shredded by opposing tight ends.