2015 NFL Free Agency Preview: Possible Scenarios for the Raiders

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Nov 24, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris (52) against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

5. Linebacker Depth

This may or may not materialize depending on the health of Nick Roach. Roach, the starting middle linebacker this year, sustained a concussion during the preseason, a concussion so severe that he was placed on IR two months later having not taken a single practice or game snap since.

The severity of the concussion puts the future of Roach’s NFL career in jeopardy, and it’s unclear if he will be available for return to the team in 2015 or ever. Roach, who was the team’s leading tackler in 2013 and is a capable veteran who can defend the run, blitz the quarterback and play coverage, was missed badly on the 2014 defense, that often seemed lost without its captain and that got piss-poor run defense on the interior from Miles Burris, playing out of position.

Making matters worse, Roach’s backup – Kaluka Maiava – was injured after appearing in only four games, and has since been waived. Bojay Filimoeatu and Jamar Chaney both made appearances on the Raider roster in an attempt to add depth to the position but neither saw much action.

If indeed Roach can not return from the concussion – or if McKenzie decides to simply cut ties with Roach altogether (Roach is owed very little on his remaining contract), the Raiders will need to add a quality mike linebacker to replace him.

Head Coach Jack Del Rio, a former linebacker himself, ran a defensive scheme in Denver that did minimize the role of the classic middle linebacker, instead getting most of the linebacker production from 4-3 outside backer types like Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, meaning that he will likely lean heavily on Sio Moore this season.

In Jacksonville, however, Del Rio’s teams usually featured a very active mike linebacker, like Mike Peterson.  Either way, Moore by himself is not enough to command the entire second level in the run game, and the Raiders will need to add another linebacker to sit in the middle of “M&M” (Mack and Moore) and thump in the run game, preferably a player who can also act as a defensive “quarterback” at the same time.

While Burris struggled last year as a Will linebacker trying to play Mike in Jason Tarver’s defense, under Del Rio and whoever he taps as his DC, it may not be necessary to have a typical 4-3 Mike backer prototype in that position. In Denver, Del Rio used a variety of players in that role, like Wesley Woodyard, who at 6’1″ 220 is practically a safety. Still, Del Rio will probably want a veteran player to lead his defense on the field, the way he once led the Vikings defense as an All-Pro linebacker in the 1990’s. A variety of names are out there potentially about to be free agents that fit the bill.

While the most recognizable name among potential FA linebackers is Brandon Spikes, Spikes’ youth, high price tag and likely poor scheme fit make him unlikely for the Raiders. Another hot name is the Bengals’ Rey Maualuga, but he is best as strongside linebacker and is bigger and slower than the type of backer that Jack Del Rio prefers.

Instead, some more likely choices are ones a bit long in the tooth, like David Harris, formerly of the New York Jets. Harris, who turns 31 tomorrow, was drafted by the Jets in 2007, when Eric Mangini was the head coach. The Raiders are interviewing Mangini as their potential defensive coordinator, which – depending on how Harris feels about his first NFL head coach – could make this less or more likely.

Harris has been a starter for the Jets as an interior 3-4 linebacker – and usually the Mike backer – since he was a rookie, and has not missed a game since 2008, starting every game that Rex Ryan coached for the Jets. Harris was a key player in Ryan’s defensive units for all those years in New York, and is a smart veteran and reliable tackler and run stopper. Harris is bigger than that the linebackers that Del Rio tends to favor at 250 pounds, but still shows good speed and agility to go along with his good football IQ and instincts.

Harris would not be a long-term solution for the Raiders, who may seek to fill that need in the draft, but could come in and start right away and have an impact, both in terms of on-field production and leadership and mentoring. Harris, due to his age and not having a lot of name recognition, may come relatively cheap, but there is also the possibility he follows Rex Ryan to Buffalo to be part of that outstanding defensive unit.

Another possibility for the Raiders is the Cowboys Justin Durant. Durant, who was drafted in 2007 by Jack Del Rio and the Jaguars, is the typical Jack Del Rio interior linebacker – a bit smaller and quicker than the standard NFL prototype – and as such has been playing a lot of outside linebacker for the Cowboys and Lions over the past four years. Durant finished the season on IR, making it two seasons in a row he has missed significant time with injury, and Durant has only once in his eight year career been available for a full 16 games.

Still, he is familiar with Del Rio, and because of his age and injury history could be acquired for next to nothing. Durant would not be a full-time solution at inside linebacker, however, and would probably be best as a depth acquisition if a rookie linebacker is drafted, or if Roach does return.

One shot in the dark is another Dallas Cowboy – former Raider first-round draft pick Rolando McClain. We are all familiar with McClain: he was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft, touted as the best first-round draft pick Al Davis had made in years. He started immediately, and was the starting middle linebacker for the best Raider teams since 2002.

Unfortunately, he was also part of a string of off-field incidents in his hometown, including a shooting incident that led to a notorious arrest photograph of him smiling in handcuffs. In 2012, he appeared to regress on the field, and head coach Dennis Allen began using Miles Burris in his place.

Allen and McClain did not get along whatsoever, leading to a practice blowup and McClain essentially quitting on the team late in the 2012 season. The relationship could not be repaired, and the Raiders cut McClain in the 2013 offseason. McClain spent 2013 out of football after “retiring” from the Ravens after spending a month on their roster in the offseason, only to return to the NFL this year in Dallas.

McClain became the starter after a season-ending injury to Sean Lee, and played excellent football, showing all the promise that he had once shown in his first two seasons in Oakland. With the Cowboys deeply invested in Lee, it’s unlikely they will retain the services of McClain.

Of course, McClain to Oakland seems highly unlikely, as his experience with the franchise – and the franchise’s experience with him – likely left a lot of wounds that have not yet healed.  Still, Dennis Allen and most of his staff are gone, and it’s not clear exactly how fractured the relationship between McKenzie and McClain really is. McClain clearly needed some time away from the game, and it appears to have done him some good. If the money is right and Jack Del Rio is willing to work with the man, it may be worth giving him another chance to make good for the team that drafted him.

Next: 2015 FA Crucial for Raiders Rebuild