NAPA, Calif. » While Darrelle Revis continues his holdout with the New York Jets in hopes of a new contract befitting a player many think is the best cornerback in the NFL, Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha is working on taking that title back.
The Raiders finally appear willing to let him, too.
After being tethered almost exclusively to the right side of Oakland’s secondary, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive back is getting his freedom and will roam the field covering opponents’ top receiver no matter where he lines up.
It’s a change in strategy and philosophy for the Raiders and the man-to-man coverages favored by owner Al Davis, a change the 29-year-old Asomugha fully embraces.
"Every year there are times when it happens, but this year I just think it will happen more because we’re doing it (in practice) more and they’re allowing it to happen more," Asomugha said this week. "Me being able to play in the slot on third down … I’ve wanted that for a while."
Asomugha was widely recognized as the top defensive back in the league when he grabbed a career-high eight interceptions in 2006 and garnered his first Pro Bowl selection. Opponents became so frustrated they nearly quit throwing to Asomugha’s side of the field entirely.
In 2009, quarterbacks attempted only 28 passes in Asomugha’s direction compared to 111 for Revis. The lack of action cemented Asomugha’s reputation in the eyes of some, but created doubt among others.
That’s why the eight-year veteran is welcoming his new role after flirting with it periodically throughout his career.
"There are so many times when I feel like I’m having the game of my life and no one knows it," Asomugha said. "That’s rough. No one sees it. The offenses see it, the people that watch film see it but the fans don’t see it."
Not that Asomugha is motivated by public opinion, though he could easily make a career change and enter politics if he wanted. He has rubbed elbows with presidents and other world dignitaries, is a mentor to teens and is deeply involved in numerous charity and volunteer efforts in the Bay Area.
Asomugha is also the face of Oakland’s defense. While Richard Seymour has the championships and Tommy Kelly has the money, it’s Asomugha who commands the most respect on and off the field.
Still, there are many who believe Revis is the better cornerback. His current holdout was reportedly sparked by his desire to get a better contract than the $45.3 million, three-year deal Asomugha received in 2009.
Asomugha has stayed above the fray when it comes to talk of him and Revis. Instead, he’s focused on his new role and trying to help the Raiders snap out of a seven-year funk that coincided with Asomugha’s arrival as a first-round pick out of Cal in 2003.
"Some of it is just being able to get him comfortable on both sides because of all the slot formations and corner over (the top)," Oakland coach Tom Cable said. "Some of it has to do with him maybe lining up on the best receiver."
Asomugha has matched up against opponents’ top receivers periodically throughout his career. Last season he held Denver’s Brandon Marshall without a catch in the first half before the Raiders altered their coverages in the second half. He also held Baltimore’s Derrick Mason to one catch in their season-ending matchup.
The Raiders hope he can do more of that this season now that he’ll be shadowing opponents’ top receiver.
"We’re doing more things, and I love it," Asomugha said. "I’ve been inside, I’ve been outside, both sides. It looks like it won’t be a thing that’s selective based off who we’re playing. It’s just going to be a thing that we can do whenever we want … and that’s great. It gets me more involved."