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.”