Inside linebacker questions remain for Raiders after NFL Draft

Inside linebacker questions remain for Raiders after NFL Draft

Inside linebacker might've been the Raiders most pressing need entering last weekend’s NFL Draft. An unheraleded skeleton crew mans that important position group, yet it wasn’t addressed until the fifth round.

Wake Forest’s Marquel Lee entered the mix at that point, joining free-agent signing Jelani Jenkins and a bunch of kids.

The Raiders remain thin and inexperienced at middle linebacker and on the weak side, positions primarily responsible for coverage and second-level run defense in the Raiders scheme. Jenkins is the only member with more than five starts.

A first-team isn’t set. There aren’t even frontrunners at this point, especially in the middle.

General manager Reggie McKenzie said before the draft he wanted to add "a couple, I hope, before we play (regular season games) in September.”

If Lee is one, another could be coming in free agency. Last year’s starter Perry Riley seems like a logical choice. He played well in 11 starts last season, adding stability to the interior defense. Player and team discussed a reunion earlier this offseason, but couldn’t agree on contract terms.

McKenzie isn’t rushed to add another body. He’d prefer to see what he has on the roster first. He hasn’t seen Jenkins practice in Raiders team drills, Lee work as a professional, Ben Heeney after recovering from ankle surgery or Cory James entering his second season. He hopes starters emerge from that group

Riley could be an option for the right price, though last year he proved willing to wait into the season to sign with a team.

“That’s an ongoing evaluation,” McKenzie said Saturday after the NFL draft. “We’ll see what we got coming in. We’ll have the rookie mini-camp and then we’ll have everybody together. If we need to add someone else, we will. No, I never close the door until it’s time to get the roster together.”

The Raiders have struggled for answers at middle linebacker. Nick Roach played well in 2013, but suffered a career-ending concussion the following preseason. Miles Burris was an ineffective fill-in. Curtis Lofton didn’t work out in 2015, and Heeney couldn’t secure his starting job before breaking an ankle.

The Raiders could get creative on passing downs and use an extra safety, but they hope a young player puts a stranglehold on the middle linebacker spot in the base defense at least.

Jenkins has primarily played weakside linebacker, but McKenzie likes the free agent signing from Miami at both inside spots.

“He’s started a lot in this league,” McKenzie said. “He too, is another guy that’s highly instinctive and aware football player. He plays in space. Now, his game more is the weak inside linebacker, but he’s played both. But, he doesn’t have the same stature as Marquel Lee in size. But, he is a good, physical football player we just wanted to add to the roster. So, he’ll compete with the rest.”

Lee has the potential to be a quality two-down linebacker. He’s 6-foot-3, 240 pounds with the strength and aggression to play inside linebacker well. He has range and says he can cover well.

“I’m a physical player at the line of scrimmage,” Lee said. “I shed blocks really well, so I feel like I can go sideline to sideline as well. Just being a motor type guy. My motor, I don’t see it ever stopping in games. Just being put where I’m best seen fit. Anything I’m asked, I’ll do to help contribute to the team. That’s the type of person I am. You can ask anybody that’s been around me for my whole life. I’m just trying to learn.”

McKenzie told Lee he’ll have a chance to compete for significant playing time as a rookie.

Neiron Ball hasn’t played since his rookie year. The 2015 fifth-round pick flashed briefly before suffering a knee injury that required surgery and kept him out of 2016. They gave his No. 58 away last season, and McKenzie said he still isn’t ready to enter an open competition to play inside linebacker.

“Neiron is still going through rehab,” McKenzie said. “So, it depends on how he feels physically. We feel good about Marquel and whomever else we bring in. We’re just going to let them all compete. Heeney will come back. We got Jelani. We got all the other veterans that were here from last year. We’re just going to let it play out and see how it goes.”

New Raiders LB Jenkins learned how to be resilient during rough 2016

New Raiders LB Jenkins learned how to be resilient during rough 2016

Playing well in a contract year is imperative in the NFL. It gives a current employer reason to re-sign a player with a handsome deal, or makes other teams want to write checks in unrestricted free agency.

That didn’t happen for Jelani Jenkins. His body broke down at the wrong time. Miami’s two-year starting weakside linebacker dealt with ailments that kept him out of seven games in 2016, limiting him to 29 tackles in nine games and seven starts.

That’s a far cry from the 181 tackles recorded in two previous years as a mainstay in the Dolphins defense. The timing was poor for sure. Several teams were interested in Jenkins, but he ended up signing a one-year deal with the Raiders on Monday looking to recover from a rough year on the field.

“I would say that was one of the most frustrating years in my life, especially regarding my career,” Jenkins said. “It just kind of taught me how to be resilient, not get my head down but just keep working, keep trying to get back out there on the field and helping the team as much as I could. But, that definitely taught me to just be resilient and I definitely got a chance to learn my body more and more and what it can take, what it can’t take, when it’s time to relax and when it’s time to keep going. All of that definitely helped.”

Jenkins is expected to play weakside linebacker in silver and black and replace Malcolm Smith, who signed with the 49ers this offseason. That position bears a heavy burden as a primary tackler against the run and a coverage option against receiving running backs and tight ends.

“It’s something I’ve had to do even since my time in college,” the University of Florida alum said. “It’s something that they asked me to do. I’ve been on teams with a lot of great tight ends and running backs. So I’ve had to cover them every day in practice. I think that helps.”

Jenkins is excited to contribute to a team on the rise, and hopes to capitalize on a year as a major contributor on the Raiders defense.

“It’s definitely a team that’s getting better and better every year,” Jenkins said. “They have a defense with a lot of talent on it. They play fast. They play hard. They play tough. They play with a lot of energy. You can tell by looking at film that they have a lot of fun. That’s something that I pride myself on, is energy and just enjoying the game. It seemed like a great fit.”

Raiders ink free agent linebacker Jenkins

Raiders ink free agent linebacker Jenkins

The Raiders needed help at linebacker and got some by signing unrestricted free agent Jelani Jenkins. The team announced the pact on Monday afternoon, after he visited the team facility.

Jenkins should fill a need at weakside linebacker, one created when incumbent Malcolm Smith signed with the 49ers.

Jenkins is the presumed starter at this point, playing a position without depth. It shouldn’t deter the Raiders from addressing this position in the NFL draft should a valued player be available at the right time.

Signing Jenkins comes a few days after Buffalo weakside linebacker Zach Brown visited the Raiders complex and left without a contract.

The Raiders still have a vacancy at middle linebacker, with Cory James and Ben Heeney expected to play backup roles. Last year’s starter Perry Riley remains on the open market.

Jenkins adds some playmaking capability and a recent injury history to the depth chart on the weakside, a spot where coverage ability is paramount.

The 25 year old is an athletic defender with upside limited to nine games and seven starts last season due to injury. He hasn’t played a full season yet, but was a full-time starter in 2014 and 2015. His best year came in 2014, when he had 110 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Jenkins is the first defender signed this offseason.