Ben Heeney vs. Neiron Ball
One of the few starting positions that isn’t set in stone is at inside linebacker, with Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball both vying for the job.
Heeney is likely considered the favorite, if not for any reason other than experience. Heeney has been healthy and therefore on the field, for 315 snaps to be exact. While Ball appeared in only six games, logging 63 snaps. The difference in on-field experience is a valuable advantage for Heeney, so Ball will have some catching up to do.
While Heeney showed improvement throughout the season, Ball was impressive in his limited playing time. Which is why the starting job is up for grabs. Also, they are a different style of linebacker, so it’ll be interesting to see who Ken Norton Jr. and Jack Del Rio prefer.
Heeney is the big-time athlete that thrives in space. Ball isn’t a slouch in the athletic department himself, but Heeney has the clear advantage there. Ball is better at taking on blockers, and also was excellent in coverage.
Per PFF, Heeney received a grade of 64.4 for the season, ranking him 45th amongst linebackers. Heeney graded out poorly in run defense (38.4), but was solid as a pass rusher (78.8) and in coverage (74.3). PFF graded Ball at 74.7 overall in his six games, which would rank him 21st if he held that same level of play. He graded at 71.6 against the run, 78.8 in coverage, but just 52.6 as a pass rusher.
PFF is of course just one of many different metrics out there to evaluate play, but they seem to be spot on with their analysis of each.
I like the fit of Neiron better, personally. The Raiders don’t have any linebackers that really excel in coverage, and Ball could be that player. Looking at the defensive personnel, there is already plenty of pass rushers to go around, so the consistent tackler who can take on blocks, perform better in run support and also in coverage is the route I hope they go.
Next: Raiders Camp Battle #2