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Camp analysis: Linebackers

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Seventh in a series of posts analyzing Raiders position groups with players reporting for training camp Tuesday:

Projected starters: WLB Thomas Howard, MLB Kirk Morrison, SLB Jon Alston. Backups: Ricky Brown, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Slade Norris, David Nixon, Sam Williams, Chris O’Neill.

Howard might be the fastest player at his position in the NFL. Morrison has been the Raiders leading tackler in each of the last three years. They rarely leave the field and are fan favorites. What’s difficult to determine is how much responsiblity they, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Raiders linebackers, bear in making one Oakland one of the worst teams in the NFL against the run. Until Oakland can hold teams under 4 yards per carry and make it difficult for opposing rushers to gain 100 yards, Raiders linebackers can’t be taken seriously and talk of Pro Bowl consideration is laughable. It’s not all their fault, because the Oakland defensive line doesn’t consistently win the line of scrimmage battle. But it’s also true Raiders linebackers have had trouble shedding blocks and haven’t been the best at fitting gaps. Two intriguing newcomers are Norris and Nixon, who consistently ran with the second team during minicamps and OTAs (Norris on the strong side, Nixon on the weak side). Ekejiuba is exclusively a special teams player. O’Neill was moved from tight end to middle linebacker at the request of Al Davis and Tom Cable. Williams, one of the nicer guys you’ll ever meet, never worked out as the classic SAM linebacker and if he makes the roster as a special teams player would be in his sixth year on scholarship.

The key battle: Alston vs. Brown. Alston went from a low of 211 pounds last season to 232 pounds, looking much thicker around the neck and shoulders without any apparent loss of speed. That’s still a tad undersized for a strong side linebacker. Not sure what to make of moving Brown to the middle for the offseason, given that he opened last season as the strong side starter. But since he was tendered at $1.7 million, he’s sticking around.

What I think: The Raiders need a strong, nasty run-stopping presence on their linebacking crew that hasn’t existed for far too long _ probably since Bill Romanowski’s last good year in 2002. Like the defensive line, the upgrades will have to come from a new coaching staff _ coordinator Jon Marshall and new linebackers coach Mike Haluchak. We can assume Haluchak knows something about the position. He’s been an NFL assistant for 23 years and has coached nothing but linebackers.

What could go wrong: The song remains the same and opposing runners continually find open gaps and creases in the defense.

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Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer