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Position group analysis: Linebackers

Seventh in a series analyzing Raiders position groups as the combine ends and free agency begins Thursday at 9 p.m.

Starters: WLB Trevor Scott, MLB Kirk Morrison, SLB Thomas Howard. Backups: Jon Alston, Ricky Brown, Isaiah Ekejiuba, David Nixon, Slade Norris, Sam Williams.

Review: Morrison led the Raiders in tackles for the fifth straight season with 133 and Howard was third with 79. But the bottom line is the Raiders ranked 29th in run defense, an area which they’ve been deficient since 2003. Alston failed to complete the season because of concussion issues, while Brown and Ekejiuba, the latter exclusively a special teams player, also battled injuries.

Scott made a successful switch from end to weak side linebacker, learning on the fly, prompting the shift of Howard to the strong side, where he lacks size and strength. Norris, a fourth-round draft pick, failed to make the 53-man roster out of training camp and was promoted after Nixon, who was an undrafted free agent. Neither player made much of an impression. Even if Williams is not back initially, he usually makes his way back on to the roster as a special teamer. He’s this decade’s version of Dan Land.

Contract status: Morrison, Howard, Brown and Alston are all restricted free agents awaiting tenders. Ekejiuba is in the second year of a three-year contract and is scheduled to make more than $1.8 million in salary.

What’s next: Probably the most interesting area on the team in terms of free agency. Do the Raiders tender Morrison and Howard at second- or first-round levels, thereby guaranteeing their return? Or will they decide they’re simply not stout enough against the run and look to discard one or the other and get more physical up front.

Could the Raiders move Morrison aside and take Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain at No. 8 overall? History says no. Other than Napoleon Harris (No. 23 overall in 2002) and Rob Fredrickson (No. 22 overall in 1994) the Raiders don’t take linebackers in the first round, let alone at No. 8. They simply don’t believe in paying huge money to a player who may end up being a part-time player, coming off the field in nickel and dime defenses.

Scott’s conversion to linebacker was extremely encouraging.

Scott finished with seven sacks, can still put his hand down in passing situations, and is a far more dangerous blitzer at linebacker than anyone else on the roster. Ekejiuba got the richest contract awarded to a pure special teamer (who doesn’t kick or return kicks) and now the Raiders must determine in Year 2 if he was worth it, considering his troublesome shoulder.

Norris, taken two picks after Louis Murphy at No. 126 overall, will need to to make a big jump this year to even begin justifying the fourth-round pick spent on him last year out of Oregon State.

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Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer