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Raiders training camp roster breakdown: Linebackers

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Ben Heeney showed his potential late last season and figures to be among the starting linebackers. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Ben Heeney showed his potential late last season and figures to be among the starting linebackers. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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.

The starters

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.

The depth

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.

Neiron Ball is a wild card in the linebackers group for the Raiders. (Foslien/Getty Images)

Neiron Ball is a wild card in the linebackers group for the Raiders.
(Foslien/Getty Images)

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

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.

Note:

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.

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Jimmy Durkin

Sports writer for the Bay Area News Group, covering the Raiders.

  • R8drTahoe in SF

    Now? But it’s not even noon yet.

    Shouldn’t we have brunch right about now?

  • HELLSBELLS

    His bowels

  • Ken SnakeLer

    That’s just like your opinion, man.

  • R8drTahoe in SF

    Are you a Trump supporter?

    Cuz yer actin like one son.

    😉

  • SnBG

    When?

  • HELLSBELLS

    Cover Girls.

  • startsthefire

    just now

  • HELLSBELLS

    We have it for about 3 weeks.

  • Ken SnakeLer

    Ahhh, we’re so close to getting to see our boys suit up for preseason. A lot of high expectations flying around the media for us. Hopefully JDR keeps the team grounded and they buy in.

  • R8drTahoe in SF

    That rug really ties those sunglasses together man.

  • Ken SnakeLer

    Mark it 8, dude.

  • RAY NJ

    Wonder if there’s room on Mt. Rushmore for Hilary?

  • inonewordraider

    Healthy 6 games last yr, in college had mircrofracture surgery one year and a brain issue a different year causing him 2 miss the whole season

  • Rik/Talk/to/The/Hand

    Or Mr.Davis

  • SnBG

    Isn’t your interpretation of stupid relative?

  • SaintKaufman

    Mystery man!

  • startsthefire

    yes

  • Rik/Talk/to/The/Hand

    Got a craving for Doritos…..

  • R8drTahoe in SF

    I’m pretty sure IrvinG plays ball with WalterS.

    Meanwhile Bruce Irvin, Shaliq Calhoun, and James Cowser say not to worry, they’ll handle things until Aldon returns.

  • Rik/Talk/to/The/Hand

    Might have a cheat day hmmm!!!

  • startsthefire

    only thing that matters is what goodell thinks

  • TrevJo

    Not sure she is anymore. I think she was already signed by the Clinton campaign.

  • TrevJo

    from his contract

  • HELLSBELLS

    Tapatio are the best.

  • Rik/Talk/to/The/Hand

    New?

  • HELLSBELLS

    Your right hand will be mad.

  • Rik/Talk/to/The/Hand

    Lmao….

  • Dan78

    Nacho cheese with Tapatio added on from bottle and some lime…

  • TrevJo

    ✌✌

  • TrevJo

    ah you beat me to it!

  • RAY NJ

    We named our new $13B aircraft carrier the ” USS Gerald Ford ” ? That’s tempting fate!

  • SnBG

    “abide”

  • HELLSBELLS

    Our just the tapatio flavored ones.

  • Dan78

    Not the same for me.. Have to stick to the OG..

  • HELLSBELLS

    Lets trade for him?

  • RAY NJ

    Looks like she signed a long time ago.

  • SnBG

    Good point. Keep em grounded.

  • SaintKaufman

    We really could have used a ILB in the draft. Myles Jack to be had for a 5th?? Man, that still burns.

  • R8der4evr

    Puff Puff Pass (Rusher)

  • inonewordraider

    Saw trump on tv?

  • startsthefire

    tell it to aldon

  • inonewordraider

    Trump ahead in the polls now

  • R8erEduc8er

    When’s the first preseason game?

  • inonewordraider

    I concur

  • HELLSBELLS

    He went in the second

  • R8der4evr

    Cory James, camp suprise
    You heard it here first

  • SaintKaufman

    Yes he did…

  • inonewordraider

    Comparing Cory James to Myles Jack?

  • R8der4evr

    Are you channeling GDog and assuming?

  • inonewordraider

    You insinuated we’d be fine without jack because we have Cory james