Why Inside Linebacker Is Still A Major Need For The Raiders

Dec 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Perry Riley (54) warms ups before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at the Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Perry Riley (54) warms ups before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at the Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders have struggled to find consistency at the inside linebacker position, and it remains an area that the team desperately needs to address.

To say that the Oakland Raiders struggled defensively in 2016 would be like reading an Andy Benoit quarterback breakdown and saying “Man, he really struggles with this, huh?”.

The unit’s woes were a major point of contention amongst fans and media alike from the very onset of the season, and blame for those issues bounced from scheme to coaching to the players themselves.

While opinions continue to differ as to what facet of the defensive corps deserves the lion’s share of this constant stream of castigation, fundamentally the answer is “all of the above”. Objectively, we can only speculate as to what players are coached to do and how well they’re coached to do it. There is a bit more data available to us in terms of understanding what scheme the unit is trying to run (which, of course, opens the door for us to speculate the former).

That leaves us with the players — and if most fans were asked to pinpoint the biggest positional weakness of the unit, I wouldn’t hesitate to bet the consensus would say the linebacking corps, and more specifically, the inside linebackers.

To recap, the Raiders began 2016 by trotting out second-year player Ben Heeney and the MVP of Super Bowl 48, Malcolm Smith, to fill the Mike and Will linebacking positions, respectively. In short, the results were less than stellar; Heeney was unceremoniously stripped of his “green dot” signal calling privileges right before the season opener in New Orleans, and by Week 3 in Tennessee, he’d been replaced in the starting lineup by rookie sixth-round pick Cory James

While James showed some glimpses, it was clear that he was still very much a project in the works, and was going to be more of a liability than the Raiders could afford at that point.

In Week 4, Perry Riley, was signed off of the street, and immediately proved to be the best and most effective option for the Raiders at the position, which was both a lucky break and a remarkably damning summation of Oakland’s linebacker depth. The Raiders rolled with the tandem of Riley and Smith for the remainder of the season; and while both made their fair share of plays, it was crystal clear that an upgrade at the position was needed.

Of course, 2016 is now in the rearview. Malcolm Smith signed a surprisingly lucrative contract with the crosstown 49ers, and the Raiders recently responded by signing Jelani Jenkins away from the Miami Dolphins to replace him. Perry Riley is an unrestricted free agent who the Raiders are (presumably) looking to bring back for 2017, and were openly flirting with free agent Zach Brown before he signed with the Redskins. Forgotten man Neiron Ball, who missed all of the 2016 season with a knee injury, remains, if nothing else, a major question mark. And yes, Heeney and James are still on the roster, and the breadth of their contributions will be, um, something to watch next season.

Which brings us to the point! Even with the addition of Jenkins, ILB remains a major need for the Raiders (especially considering his injury history). Whether they choose to continue to address it in free agency, or set their sights on the draft, that it needs to be addressed is hardly a matter of debate. Who they find to do so, however, is of the utmost importance, and may be the absolute toughest question the front office has to answer as the offseason progresses.

But it’s a little more complex than just adding a “better” player than Malcolm Smith or Ben Heeney. The key to identifying who that player (or players) is and can be lies in what it is decided that player’s strengths and capabilities need to be. You hear all the time that today’s NFL is less about the positional archetypes of old, and more about solving for matchups. As such, the “standard” for a “three-down” inside linebacker is no longer simply being a great run defender that can occasionally drop into coverage. You need guys that have the speed and coverage ability to be able to consistently run with tight ends and slot receivers, while maintaining the size and strength to shed blockers and be a force in the run game.

Obviously, those type of players come at a premium. Think of it as you’ve become conditioned to think of running backs in recent years. Just as the league has moved away from employing a singular “bell-cow” back to take 80% of the carries with an occasional spell in favor of a committee of two or three backs with specialized roles and abilities, the same can be said for linebackers, especially considering how diverse and complex both offensive and defensive schemes have become across the league.

Case-in-point: when Jack Del Rio brought Ken Norton Jr. aboard to be the Raiders’ defensive coordinator in 2015, the former Seahawks LB coach issued a quote that probably excited a bunch of fans at the time (myself included), but may ultimately come back to haunt his tenure in the Silver & Black.

"“I have certain ideas that I have that I know that work. [Del Rio] has certain ideas that he has that he knows that work. We’re going to bring them together and obviously make them the Raider Way,” Norton boasted at the presser."

Norton’s “ideas” were presumed to be elements of Seattle’s 4-3 Under base defense, which at the time, was the league’s premiere unit and system. A major facet of Pete Carroll’s version of this defense revolves around speed and versatility in the linebacking corps; more specifically, the strongside (or “Sam) linebacker, who, in this alignment, is positioned more along the defensive line next to the end, as opposed to in the second level, where one might traditionally think a linebacker should play. In Carroll’s 4-3, the Sam holds pass-rush and outside run responsibilities.

Again, presumably, the braintrust of JDR and KNJ sought to marry these concepts to Del Rio’s more traditional 3-4 front, which he has run since his days in Jacksonville and more recently, in Denver.

Without delving too deep into the intricacies and inner-workings of what the Raiders defense seems to be trying to do, which A) has already been done to a much more knowledgeable degree by JBB’s own Ted Nguyen on his personal blog, and B) requires more words than the majority of you have attention span for, let’s say, on a very basic level, that the Raiders have asked the likes of Ben Heeney, Malcolm Smith, Curtis Lofton (remember him?) and Cory James to do what Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright and Brandon Marshall have done in Seattle and Denver, respectively.

We see how well that has worked.

In fairness, there’s a counter-argument to be made that those two units had the very important benefit of boasting exemplary defensive lines and shut-down secondaries. True indeed, if you have great run-stoppers in front of them and great coverage men behind them, you can simplify the asks of your inside linebackers and more or less mask any deficiencies they may have.

But the Raiders don’t exactly have that luxury. While both the d-line and the secondary have shown momentary flashes of promise over the course of the past two years, they’ve also been largely inconsistent. In short, the talent/depth of the other two positional corps is average, at best, and the inside linebackers are a clear step below that.

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It’s a blatant hole in the unit that opposing offenses waste no time in attacking. When the Raiders have lost a football game over the past two seasons (and really, longer than that; I still have nightmares over Rolando McClain having to cover Calvin Johnson over the middle), you can bet that the inside backers were responsible in some form or fashion.

In that timespan, Reggie McKenzie has made a major investment in terms of both draft picks and salary cap, in bolstering the defensive front and backfield. The same can’t be said for the middle of the unit, with McKenzie & Co. preferring to take chances on value guys like Ben Heeney and Cory James.

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With Norton back to run the unit once more in 2017 (including some guidance from newly-hired assistant head/defensive coach John Pagano), the Raiders can’t afford skimp on the ILB position any longer. Adding Jenkins is a start, and bringing Riley back would be a definite plus. Potentially landing a guy like Hasson Reddick at the #24 spot in the draft would be a dream.

But the point is, regardless to what system or scheme they implement in 2017, the Raiders need a playmaker in the middle of this defense to make it work. In the very least, they need a guy that fits the modern mold for what an inside linebacker is in this day and age. They have yet to find one, and if they want to live up to the substantial expectations set forth by their resurgent 2016, they’ll need to do so ASAP.