For many years, pointing out specific needs for the Oakland Raiders was a pointless exercise. There were too many to identify, reversing the conversation to count what positions were not deficient.
But now that general manager Reggie McKenzie has successfully led a resurgence for the long-dormant franchise and has it stocked with more quality young talents than it’s possessed in a generation, the Raiders and their fans can now look at the equation like other contenders do.
Off-ball linebacker has been a need throughout the McKenzie era, but the GM’s various mid- and lower-level investments have not solidified the position. Only in 2017, this strategy could be set for its most interesting chapter.
Oakland will deploy a loaded offense and has spent heavily (or used premium draft picks) to fortify two levels of its defense in recent years.
The Raiders depth chart going into their first preseason game reveals two of McKenzie’s recent late-round linebacker as starters, with Cory James and Marquel Lee stationed alongside Bruce Irvin at linebacker in the team’s 4-3 base set. They are the outliers on a defense that’s all free agent expenditures or high draft choices.
However, the Silver and Black will primarily use Irvin as a pass rusher — either in a nickel set as a defensive end or in a hybrid 3-4 look — meaning James and Lee would be in line to pick up first-string passing-down duties at linebacker.
While pre-preseason depth charts are more an obligation for coaches than a surefire indication of players’ standing, coach Jack Del Rio slotting a rookie and a second-year player coming off a nondescript season as first-string ‘backers is interesting on several fronts.
Optimistically speaking, this placement can be looked at as a plus regarding the talents of two young linebackers.
Lee joined the Raiders as a fifth-round pick out of Wake Forest in April, and the 21-year-old was a tackling machine for the Demon Deacons. He registered more than 100 during his sophomore and senior seasons and has thus far been a quick study at training camp.
James played more of a pass-rushing role at Colorado State but showed some versatility as a four-year contributor. All four seasons with the Rams featured at least 50 James tackles and in three of them, the eventual 2016 sixth-round pick registered at least 6.5 sacks. James, though, did not stick as a starter in 2016 for the Raiders, who opted to sign Perry Riley midseason to play alongside Malcolm Smith.
Now the Raiders enter a season with higher expectations than they did in 2016. With the Denver Broncos again featuring an uninspiring quarterback competition and the Kansas City Chiefs looking like they’re preparing for a 2018 run rather than another push with an Alex Smith-led team, the door is open for the Raiders to win their first AFC West title since 2002.
The Raiders let Malcolm Smith walk in free agency after two middling seasons. They were wise not to match the 49ers’ outlandish offer (five years, $26.5 million). But the Raiders did not re-sign Riley, either, and their Jelani Jenkins addition — for one year and $1 million — apparently hasn’t moved the needle much.
Given that Jenkins was Oakland’s top defensive free agent signing during an offseason oddly spent fortifying an already top-caliber offense, seeing the former Miami Dolphins starter as a second-teamer behind Day 3 draft picks is strange. It’s not like Jenkins was trending in the right direction, with Pro Football Focus giving the outside linebacker the worst grade among any full-time ‘backer last season, but he has by far the most experience among Raiders players who could play linebacker in the nickel set.
Listing Jenkins as a second-team performer so early doesn’t mean he’ll have a backup role. But this shows he hasn’t done enough to earn the kind of status recent Raiders free agent defenders — from Irvin to Sean Smith to Reggie Nelson to Dan Williams — did during their first seasons with the team.
Even a declining Curtis Lofton earned the starting job out of the gate two years ago. And the Raiders linebackers weren’t in a much better place in 2015 than they are now, resource-wise.
The Raiders have used their resources exceptionally well to build a team capable of making noise in January. But they are gambling that McKenzie’s — and former McKenzie Packers boss Ted Thompson’s — strategy of valuing non-rush linebackers as lower-level commodities will finally work.
It hasn’t yet.
Day 3 picks Neiron Ball, Ben Heeney and James were given small windows as starters to date. None stuck. The one linebacker McKenzie picked on Day 2, Sio Moore (a third-rounder in 2013), was traded once Del Rio arrived. And while it’s early on James, pairing him with another late-round selection is curious for a team with the aspirations the Raiders have.
Starting two inexperienced ‘backers in the regular season could be an issue, especially for a team with second-level defenders who struggled in coverage in recent years.
Just about every other AFC contender takes this position more seriously than the Raiders do. And Oakland, even after extensions for Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson, has more than $13 million in cap space.
While it’s interesting that the Raiders have a fail-safe option in Riley sitting in free agency capable of being plugged back in due to his experience in Oakland, it’s a little weird a team that could challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy is taking this risk. Reacquiring Riley would be a low-risk insurance buy in case Lee isn’t ready.
If the gap between the young talents and Riley is obvious, then that’s defensible. But if it isn’t, and it likely isn’t, should the Raiders risk having their just-in-case linebacker signed by another team?
Nevertheless, the early part of this preseason will show if the Raiders’ new linebackers are ready for this.
Because the early part of the franchise’s highest-stakes season in 15 years is about to be a referendum on McKenzie’s linebacker philosophy.
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