With reporting day less than two weeks away, the sixth in a series of questions and issues to be sorted out in Napa:
Can the Raiders starting linebackers hold up in pass coverage?
Look for Darren McFadden to be running circle routes, drag routes and screen passes virtually every day in Napa, and not simply because it’s a good way for quarterback Jason Campbell to pick up a lot of yardage.
When the Raiders open the regular season against Chris Johnson and the run-heavy Tennessee Titans, it will be with an entirely new group of linebackers from the 2009 opener, health permitting, of course. In place of weakside linebacker Thomas Howard will be Trevor Scott, top draft pick Rolando McClain takes over for longtime leading tackler Kirk Morrison and trade acquisition Kamerion Wimbley is the strong side starter for Rickey Brown.
Over the past four years, when Morrison played middle linebacker and Howard took over the weak side as a rookie, the Raiders finished 29th, 31st, 31st and 25th in rushing defense and gave up an NFL high 86 rushing touchdowns in 64 games.
The two were regarded as good pass defenders, with the highlight coming in 2007 when Howard had six interceptions and Morrison four as they combined for 10 of the team’s 18 interceptions.
But there was no getting around (or maybe too much getting around _ as well as getting through) the fact that Oakland was on the small side even if they were mobile in space. With Morrison intercepting two passes in his last 32 games and Howard three in his last 43, it wasn’t as if the Raiders were getting the payoff in turnovers for whatever they gave up against the run.
All three of the new starters are listed at 255 pounds, but visually, the difference in size is striking. It’s the first thing people noticed about McClain as opposed to Morrison, and both Wimbley and Scott have the capability to play with their hand down as an end _ and in fact have done so.
That ought to help the Raiders against the run. At least one prominent former Raiders defensive lineman would grumble about the inability of the club’s linebackers to get off blocks and plug gaps.
And although Howard remains on the roster, ostensibly to emerge on passing downs, defensive coordinator John Marshall can expect a steady diet of short passes to running backs and/or second tight ends designed to test the coverage skills of Wimbley, Scott and McClain.
When predecessor Rob Ryan attempted to play with 260-pound plus outside linebackers Tyler Brayton and Grant Irons in 2004, it lasted as long as it took for Tom Brady to take it apart in the opener. By Week 2, Morrison was at weak side linebacker for Irons, and the Raiders were reducing Brayton’s snaps as well and playing more nickel, getting Nnamdi Asomugha more snaps along with starters Charles Woodson and Fabian Washington.
Morrison replaced Danny Clark in the middle in his second season.
Wimbley has four passes defensed and one interception in four years as a Cleveland starter as a strong side linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Scott’s athletic skills are not in question, nor are his hand _ he was a tight end in college before moving to defensive end. But there are bound to be growing pains and he learns to play standing up and how to move his hips and play in coverage.
As for McClain, whatever criticisms there were of his game in college stemmed from his ability in pass coverage. While the Raiders wouldn’t have taken him at No. 8 if they didn’t think he was an every-down linebacker, some clubs were wary of spending a premium pick for fear he’d be off the field in nickel and dime coverages.
Previous camp questions: