The player the Raiders envisioned as the leader of their defense for years will be on full display Sunday, when the Raiders play the Carolina Panthers. Problem is, that player will be the one in the middle of the Panthers defense and not Rolando McClain.
Panthers rookie Luke Kuechly has developed into everything the Raiders hoped for when they selected McClain with the eighth pick of the 2010 NFL draft. Kuechly arrived this season as the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft out of Boston College, and he wasted little time in returning huge dividends.
“He’s all over the place,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “He made every play in college and he’s making a ton of them here in the NFL. He’s a really good football player. He’s instinctive; he’s fast; he’s athletic. He plays extremely hard.”
Kuechly leads the Panthers with 139 tackles, including an NFL-best three games in which he posted 15 or more tackles. Meanwhile, McClain likely will be on the sideline, inactive for a second straight game, as the Raiders decide how to proceed with a player that has failed to mature into a reliable player.
“A guy comes in and becomes your star middle linebacker, and he has to step up and become that leader, and that’s exactly what Luke has done for us on the defensive side,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Kuechly in a conference call with Bay Area media. “He has stepped up, become that leader. He understands the responsibility of being the Mike linebacker, the middle linebacker.
“When you’re that guy in the inside that everybody is looking to, Luke has the answers. Part of it has been his upbringing, his training as a football player. He understands the game itself, so that’s another key element that he has going for him. Not only is he a good athlete and a good football player, but he’s a smart football player.”
That’s what the Raiders thought they were getting in McClain, a standout at Alabama. Both won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top collegiate linebacker in their final seasons.
Yet, Kuechly stepped in right away as the starter for the Panthers this season and played as if he still is in college. McClain’s play dipped so much that he was removed from the field in nickel situations after four games this season in favor of rookie Miles Burris and, ultimately, benched altogether in favor of free-agent signee Omar Gaither.
“I don’t know that we have that guy that just steps up and says that, ‘I’m the guy and I’m going to make all the adjustments for you,’ ” Allen said. “We’re still looking for that.”
The Raiders hoped McClain would be that guy. To that end, Allen and other coaches impressed upon McClain in the offseason to become more vocal and take on more of a leadership role.
McClain embraced the idea, to some extent, though he said he isn’t comfortable being vocal the way most middle linebackers tend to be. Allen said it’s imperative that someone on defense take charge.
“That’s big,” Allen said. “You have your quarterback on offense and you need a quarterback on defense because there’s a lot of communication that goes on defensively. Most places that you’re at, the middle linebacker is kind of the guy that does that for you.”
Kuechly said he learned in college the value of communicating. It also helps, he said, that he plays for a head coach that played linebacker and is surrounded by older players.
Even so, he added, becoming a leader is something that comes from the way you play and the way you conduct yourself, not by being a high draft pick and someone that is receiving a boatload of money.
“It’s one of those things where you got to earn respect from the guys around you,” Kuechly said. “At first, you can’t go in and act like you’re the head guy. There’s like a hierarchy, a totem pole that you kind of got to earn the respect of the other guys. If you can kind of do that, it allows you to maybe kind of lead the (defense).”
Kuechly caught the eye of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer right away when Palmer watched tape of the Panthers games.
“He’s played middle linebacker and he’s played the strong side and the weak side,” Palmer said. “For a rookie to do that, it’s pretty unorthodox. There’s not a lot of rookies that come in and play multiple positions.
“He’s second or third in the league in tackles. To have those kinds of statistics as a rookie is something you don’t see. He has the stats but you turn on the film, he just shows up. He’s all over the place, harassing guys running routes. He’s always around the ball, making tackles and assisting on tackles so he’s a very good pick for them.”
— The Raiders and Panthers had each other on speed dial during the offseason, with Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie pulling off two trades.
In one, McKenzie sent wide receiver Louis Murphy to the Panthers for a seventh-round draft pick. In the other, the teams exchanged running back Mike Goodson for offensive tackle Bruce Campbell.
Murphy and Goodson worked out just fine for both teams. Murphy has 21 receptions for 274 yards and one touchdown in 14 games, surpassing his totals in all three categories for the Raiders in 2011. Goodson has rushed for 200 yards (6.7-yard average) and caught 15 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown.
“Louis Murphy has done a great job for us, he really has,” Rivera said. “He’s really helped us in terms of our deep ball threat. When Brandon LaFell went down with an injury, he stepped in and became our No. 2 receiver and he has been a good vertical threat. He’s made a couple clutch catches for us the last few weeks. It’s good to have him here.”
Rivera said the Panthers liked Goodson. It just became a matter of numbers, with Goodson being the odd man out in a crowded backfield.
“Our problem was we had too many running backs,” Rivera said. “We brought in a fullback/running back and we had DeAngelo (Williams) and we had Jonathan Stewart. So, rather than release a guy outright, we tried to get something for him. We feel pretty good about what Bruce Campbell’s done for us since he’s been here. We felt both teams made out well.”
Goodson said he is fired up about playing the Panthers, yet he’s also trying to maintain his composure.
“I am looking forward to it,” Goodson said. “It’s a pretty big deal. That’s my old team and where I used to be for so long. They decided to trade me here, so I’m excited to take my new team and go back against those guys.”
Campbell was a fourth-round draft pick of the Raiders in 2010. He struggled settling in at a position during his two years in Oakland, bouncing around from guard to tackle and also battling injuries.
The Panthers jumped at the chance to acquire a player with impressive size, speed and strength, even if Campbell is a raw prospect.
“He’s coming along very well,” Rivera said. “We have him working strictly as a left tackle. The unfortunate thing for him right now is, he is behind Jordan Gross. We told him, ‘Hey, you have an opportunity to take a step back, learn the techniques, learn how to play the position the way we need it to be played.’ There is no pressure on him right now. He’s looked good, he’s done some really nice things for us, he had a nice training camp for us and things look bright as we go into the future.”
— The Carolina game is Oakland’s final shot at beating an NFC team this season. They already lost to the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the NFC South. The Panthers are 5-9, but they are in the midst of a three-game win streak.
— Count quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey as two more that think the Raiders aren’t in need of a major overhaul, just another year in the offensive and defensive systems.
Heyward-Bey said the pieces are in place on offense, especially when the Raiders get back receiver Jacoby Ford from his foot injury next season.
“Oh, yeah,” Heyward-Bey said. “I’m here, so I feel like I’m probably a good piece. We definitely have the pieces here. The thing about football is, you always feel like you can get better. So, I know Reggie (McKenzie) and D.A. are going to try to do that on both sides of the ball.”
Heyward-Bey is in his fourth NFL season. He said he has been in a different offense every season. The prospect of playing in the same system from one year to the next is enticing.
“That would be nice,” Heyward-Bey said. “It would be real nice.”
Palmer said offensive coordinator Greg Knapp warned the players that there would be growing pains but, given patience, things eventually would click.
“A second year will do wonders, obviously,” Palmer said, “and with free agency and the draft and adding players here and there, you’re only going to get better.”
— Raiders wide receiver Rod Streater is the seventh undrafted rookie since 2000 to catch as many as 33 passes his first season.
The six others are: Dominic Rhodes (34 in 2001), Selvin Young (35, 2007); Davone Bess (54, 2008), Blair White (36, 2010), Keiland Williams (39, 2010) and Doug Baldwin (51, 2011).
— Allen said Denarius Moore and Phillip Adams are among those working on fielding punts this week. Adams is returning from his second concussion, Moore is returning from a game in which he struggled with his decision-making on punt returns. Matt Giordano is another option.
— Goodson, kicker Sebastain Janikowski and the defense received game balls for their play in a 15-0 victory over the Chiefs last Sunday.
Janikowski declined an interview request. Goodson called the honor “huge.”
Allen said it’s at the point where he expects Janikowski to make every field-goal attempt. Why not? Janikowski is 29 of 32 this season, with his misses from 51, 61 and 64 yards.
“Yes, I do,” Allen said. “I think he does too. I don’t really care where he kicks it from. When you have a great player, that’s what you expect and that’s what he expects. It’s more important that that’s what he expects. So it’s a comforting feeling for me knowing that when we get across the 50, I feel confident being able to put him in the game and feel like we can make the kick and get three points.”