We turn our attention to linebackers for part four of this 10-part series looking at each of the Raiders position groups before training camp begins on Friday.
This is when it starts to get a little tricky, especially for a team like the Raiders. The line between linebacker and defensive end can get very blurry. Consider this: Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin play essentially the same position on opposite sides of the defense. Mack is listed at defensive end and Irvin at linebacker.
For the purposes of this breakdown, I’ll go with the positions each player is listed at on the Raiders official roster. Irvin and Shilique Calhoun will appear here. Mack will be in the next post for defensive lineman.
Irvin obviously occupies a starting outside linebacker spot. The Raiders intend to focus on sending Irvin forward more and not having him dropping back into coverage as much as he did in Seattle. The goal is to see his sack total jump up similar to Mack’s.
Veteran Malcolm Smith and second-year player Ben Heeney should handle the two inside linebacker spots. Smith excelled in his first season as a full-time starter last year with the Raiders after playing situationally in Seattle. He had a career-high and team-leading 122 tackles. His four sacks were double his previous career total and he also had an interception and two forced fumbles.
Heeney, a fifth-round pick last season from Kansas, earned three late starts last year and finished the season with 31 tackles and 2. 5 sacks. He opened some eyes in training camp and the preseason during his rookie season and finished it strong as well. The Raiders showed faith in him during the offseason by not heavily addressing the inside linebackers group.
Um, well, yeah.
Yes, depth is a concern here for the Raiders. Smith has only one season as a full-time starter and Heeney’s in his second year, period. Yet, they are both easily the most experienced inside linebackers on the roster.
The backups for Smith and Heeney include John Lotulelei and Korey Toomer, who have both played in 18 games over three seasons.
Lotulelei had two starts with Jacksonville in 2013 and played briefly under defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in Seattle in 2013. He joined the practice squad late last year and was activated after Mario Edwards Jr. went on injured reserve. He didn’t see any game action though.
Toomer played in 10 games last year for the Raiders, but primarily on special teams and he had just four tackles.
Calhoun has the look of a pretty good backup to Irvin’s spot on the outside. The third-round pick from Michigan State had a productive college career (27.5 career sacks) and should grow well into that position.
The wild card
The big wild card from the linebacker group is Neiron Ball. It’s easy for people to get caught up in thinking about how good Ball was before he got hurt (and trust me, I’ve seen plenty of tweets about that). But it’s still unknown how good Ball was and might be.
Ball played a good game or so before the injury. He had a sack and fumble recovery in the win against Cleveland, then earned that start at home against Denver. That’s what made him popular. The Raiders were torched by opposing tight ends the first four games before shutting down the Broncos pretty well. What we didn’t know at the time was the Broncos passing game was not a very good one and their tight end production was pretty awful.
Ball, of course, injured his knee a week later, didn’t make it back in the 4-6 week projection provided by general manager Reggie McKenzie and didn’t participate in the offseason program. He was on the field with the rookies, quarterbacks and recovering injured players Sunday, so that’s a good sign. But we still need to see more proof of what he can do on the field.
The rest of the linebacker group includes Daren Bates, who figures to make his hay on special teams. Sixth-round pick Cory James will also likely get his start on those units. Fresno State product Kyrie Wilson is an undrafted rookie, as is interesting prospect James Cowser.
Cowser is a linebacker/defensive end who will be an outside pass rusher. The Southern Utah product set the FCS record with 42.5 career sacks and 80 tackles for loss. If he can replicate that production against NFL competition — a stiff jump from the FCS — he could be fun to watch.
The team is also now listing former safety Jimmy Hall at linebacker. He’s 6-1, 230 pounds and has outside linebacker experience from college. He could presumably add some pass coverage skills to the linebackers unit.
I didn’t initially make any inclusion of Aldon Smith, which is probably all the same after the most recent news on him. Who knows what will come of it, but the NFL is now investigating. That’s not good for a player hoping to have his reinstatement considered in a few months. The Raiders had to consider any production from Smith this year a bonus before any of this came up. That’s the case even more so now.