Oakland Raiders: Possible 2015 Free Agency Scenarios

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Nov 9, 2014; London, UNITED KINGDOM; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain (55) against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. The Cowboys defeated the Jaguars 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Linebackers

One of the biggest holes in the Raider roster this year has been at the middle linebacker position, where an injury to starter Nick Roach, followed by an injury to backup Kaluka Maiava, has forced backup Will linebacker Miles Burris into the role, where he has struggled mightily for most of the year. Barring an enormous individual turnaround over the next five games (although he has improved in the past four weeks), Burris will not be the man McKenzie looks to as the future of the position.  Nick Roach still has two years left on his deal – at a massive bargain for the Raiders – but his concussion issue may be something that gives the Raiders pause about relying on him to return for the last two years of his deal. With very little guaranteed money left on his deal, McKenzie may eat the dead money and just cut Roach outright and shop for a middle linebacker of the future.

Of course, there are some pretty solid middle linebackers in the draft that Reggie may be gunning for: Eric Kendricks out of UCLA is a tackling and playmaking machine, Miami’s Denzel Perryman is a safe bet, and Mississippi State’s Bernardrick McKinney is a versatile physical phenom. But the middle linebacker spot is so vastly important to the success of the defense that McKenzie may not want to risk another year of Miles Burris and some rookie getting caught out of position and shoved around by offensive guards all the time. If Roach isn’t back, McKenzie will almost definitely look to improve the position in free agency.

There are a lot of strong middle linebackers in 2015’s potential free agency class. Topping the list is the Bills’ Brandon Spikes, who is on a one-year deal with Buffalo after being dumped by the Patriots after the 2013 season. A young, athletic player, he was a very consistent tackler for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013 and also plays well in pass coverage despite not being particularly fast. Spikes is a popular name, but his production in Buffalo has been low this season and he’s had some off-the-field issues in the past, plus may still be dealing with a lingering knee issue from his time in New England. He might not be as popular among NFL GM’s is he is with the media and fans, and therefore can be acquired cheap as a stop-gap while a rookie is developed.

The Bengals’ Rey Maualuga is a similar story: still relatively young (27), the veteran Maualuga has played his entire five years in Cincinnati, and has been the starting middle linebacker there for much of the past three years but he may be on his way out there. Maualuga is a productive linebacker (464 total tackles in his career) who is effective against both the run and the pass, and is faster and more athletic than Spikes, but often thought to be playing out of position at the middle linebacker spot. He missed significant time this year with a hamstring injury, and like Spikes could be boom or bust in the 2015 free agency class. But, if he comes cheap, he could be very well worth it to the Raiders.

Another, not quite as likely but certainly possible scenario involves current Jets middle linebacker David Harris. Harris is an eighth-year pro who will turn 31 in January who has spent his entire career in New York and has been Rex Ryan’s starting Mike backer since 2009. With Ryan very likely on his way out in New York, there’s a good chance Harris may opt to leave as well, either looking for another opportunity or looking to follow his former coach to his next job.

Harris has been the “quarterback” for New York’s very good defenses for nearly six full seasons racking up 632 total tackles in 97 games under Rex Ryan. He’s also a good blitzing threat (like Nick Roach), racking up 26.5 career sacks, and he is capable in pass coverage, as well. Harris is not a big name, and he’s not particularly young, but he will likely not command the massive salary he earns now (he’s costing the Jets $7M against the cap this year) in a future deal at the age of 31, and he can be instrumental in developing young linebackers. If somehow Rex Ryan finds his way to the Raiders sideline, the probability of this scenario skyrockets, of course, but even without Rex, if the Jets do indeed let Harris walk, he’d be a good temporary fit in Oakland.

If McKenzie decides to solve the middle linebacker question long-term using free agency – which isn’t his style – he may want to look south to Santa Clara to the 49ers Michael Wilhoite. Wilhoite, a fourth-year pro who turns 28 on New Years’ Day, has filled in for the injured Navarro Bowman for the 49ers all season after seeing only limited action for most of his career. He has been solid for the 49ers, racking up 55 total tackles through eleven games. Wilhoite is in the final year of his deal with San Francisco, and will undoubtedly want to test the free agent waters after a breakout year while the 49ers seem to be all set with interior linebackers and won’t want to re-sign him.

While Wilhoite has had a very good year, it has only been one year, and so he won’t be worth the risk on a big-money, long-term deal. If, however, the McKenzie can get him to come on a two or three year deal without a whole lot of guaranteed money, the 49er has some solid upside: he is incredibly athletic, and has demonstrated that he can be consistent and productive across almost an entire NFL season already.

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  • There is also a ghost of the past in play for the Raiders: Rolando McClain. Raider fans all remember McClain, of course: the standout from Alabama was taken eighth overall in the 2010 draft by Al Davis. McClain body-slammed Danny Amendola and ruptured Jason Witten’s spleen. He also got caught out of position a lot, took bad angles, was lousy in pass coverage, and took one of the greatest arrest photos in NFL history. He clashed with Dennis Allen and started acting out due to some pretty bad emotional/mental issues.

    McClain was cut by McKenzie in 2012, then spent a short time in Baltimore before “retiring” from the NFL to go home to Alabama and get his head straight, supposedly. He re-emerged this year for the Dallas Cowboys and has started all year in place of the injured Sean Lee, and has had a stellar season. McClain has recorded 55 tackles, two interceptions and a sack so far on the year, leading a very solid Cowboys’ defensive unit. Sean Lee is still under contract for a few more years in Dallas, and is due a whole lot of guaranteed money. McClain is on a prove-it deal that expires after this year.

    McClain will likely have no personal animosity toward anyone on the Raiders coaching staff in 2015, since Allen is already gone and Jason Tarver probably won’t be back either. It’s unclear if he harbors bad blood toward Reggie McKenzie, however, or if McKenzie harbors any toward him. McClain seems to have shaken the personal demons that derailed his young NFL career, and if he has, he has shown that he can be a very strong, productive NFL middle linebacker.  And he’ll be 26 years old next year, meaning there’s a lot of gas left in his tank, enough that he could be a potential starter for years to come. Could he be re-united with the Silver and Black? Would Raider fans welcome him back?  This scenario seems unlikely but, especially if the money is right, could be the best free agency scenario available for the Raiders to fill the crucial middle linebacker position.