The final player to step behind the podium following the Raiders 17-16 preseason win over the Rams was rookie cornerback Nate Hobbs. The fifth-rounder had all but locked up the starting nickel job to begin this season and he intercepted and ran away with it in this game. Literally.
Hobbs had a phenomenal game in LA which came on the heels of a standout performance in the preseason opener as well. Jon Gruden said Hobbs has even surpassed his expectations when they drafted him out of Illinois.
“I’m really proud of him. I’m really excited to see what he does in his future,” Gruden said of Hobbs. “We tried to summarize him a couple of days ago. He has the ‘it’ factor, he rarely makes the same mistake twice, he loves football, and he eats it up. He’s one of the energizers of our defense. He’s walked in here and given us a lot of skills that we can utilize certainly.”
This performance earned Hobbs a game ball, which Gruden said was something he doesn’t typically give out for preseason games.
I passed Hobbs on the way out of the press conference room and the young corner had not one, but two footballs in his possession. One was his game ball, the other was the ball he intercepted. Quite the haul for the quiet, young fifth-round rookie.
Hobbs got the interception through no accident. After having played the slot through the first half, he was moved to outside corner to see how he fared. On his third snap, the Rams tested him. He passed. With flying colors. He diagnosed the play, watched the quarterback, and tracked the ball on a deep post pattern to pick it clean.
“I just shuffled, I saw one sit down and two kept going up the seam, so I just climbed,” Hobbs recalled of the play. “I don’t even think it’s in the playbook, but I was just trying to be a football player and I saw the ball come out of the quarterback’s hands and ran to the receiver and looked up and the ball was there.”
That play wasn’t out of nowhere either. He had two nice tackles on the Rams’ first drive, including one on third down to force a punt. And later he had a pass breakup as well. And this performance was after he had a hard sack on Seahawks QB Geno Smith in the preseason opener and had held his own in the scrimmages with the Rams this week as well. Prompting Josh Jacobs to gush about him.
“I love that dude,” Jacobs said of Hobbs this week. “So, he’ll be right next to me all the time in the locker room, he’s not too far. But I love him. I love his energy, I just love the way he plays the game. He has that never-quit attitude, wanting to be a better player and he flies around. You can see the confidence in his game. I just try to talk to him every chance I get, tell him he’s doing a good job and just to keep stacking days. So, I’m excited to see it.”
Hobbs simply shows a level of play and understanding you don’t expect from a rookie, let alone a fifth-round pick. Particularly the part about not making the same mistake twice.
“I feel like it’s trying to be a pro at what I do. If I’m professional, I can’t keep making the same mistakes,” Hobbs said. “At the end of the day, this is something that they trusted me to do and they’re paying me to do it, so I feel like I’m a pro I shouldn’t make the same mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, I’m a rookie, and I’m a football player. You’re gonna make mistakes in the game, just don’t let it be the same one. So, I just try to go about it that way.”
Through much of camp, Nevin Lawson has been pegged as the starter at the nickel spot. Leaving the competition seemingly between Hobbs and Amik Robertson. But Hobbs has now put some distance between him and Robertson in that competition. And even if Lawson is still currently seen as the starter — which he may not be at this point — he’s suspended the first two games.
Last week Gruden said Hobbs “may be the opening day starter for us.” Tonight he put Hobbs in the same sentence as second-round rookie Tre’von Moehrig who has been pegged as the full-time starting free safety since the moment they drafted him. Which is to say Hobbs has earned the starting job for the season opener and perhaps beyond. If he can play like this in the regular season, how do you even consider taking him out?