Oakland Raiders: So, What Exactly Is McKenzie’s Plan At Linebacker?

May 13, 2016; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio (left) and general manager Reggie McKenzie during rookie minicamp at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
May 13, 2016; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio (left) and general manager Reggie McKenzie during rookie minicamp at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie more or less ignored a pressing need for the team during the draft, which begs the question – what is the plan at linebacker?

Heading into the Draft, the Oakland Raiders had some needs they needed to be filled. Specifically, they had needs at the inside linebacker slot and along the interior of their defensive line. Having been abused by opposing run games and tight ends for the past couple of seasons, it would have stood to reason to see McKenzie take a playmaker in the front seven in a Draft rich with them.

And yet, he didn’t. Which begs the question – what is his plan at linebacker moving forward?

Given the lack of emphasis on the position – with the exception of fifth-round addition Marquel Lee – it would seem that McKenzie is comfortable with the linebackers currently on the roster. It’s hard to understand why that could be though, when this group – though, they had a few flashes now and then – struggled to defend the run and struggled even more in pass coverage.

Simply put, the unit was not very adept at covering tight ends or pass catching running backs. They got burned more often and more thoroughly than California during fire season.

Although they made a late play for Zach Brown out of Buffalo, it was somewhat surprising that McKenzie didn’t aggressively pursue inside linebackers during free agency. There were a number who could have helped upgrade the unit and for the most part, McKenzie was content to let them all pass by with barely a nod in their direction.

And let’s not forget, Perry Riley is still out there and still unsigned. Coming in off the street like he did, Riley made some major contributions to the defense and was probably one of the best inside linebackers the Raiders have had over the last few years. He played tough against the run and pass, and provided some consistent play in the middle of that defense.

Oakland Raiders
Dec 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Perry Riley (54) looks across the line during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

And yet, McKenzie let him walk away. Now, it’s possible that Riley and McKenzie get a deal done at some point this offseason still. But with each day that passes, it starts to seem a little more unlikely.

He had the chance to grab the Draft’s top linebacker – Alabama’s Reuben Foster. He passed. He had the chance to grab another very solid prospect in Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham. He passed – Twice.

Which means that the Raiders still have a problem in the middle of their defense and no real solutions to said problem emerging.

Now, it’s entirely possible that with whatever tweaks John Pagano is helping make to Ken Norton‘s defense, that the play of the linebackers currently on the roster, might be elevated or somehow mitigated. But the unit – Jelani Jenkins and Marquel Lee aside – is largely the same unit that was on the field last season. The unit that struggled mightily.

Ben Heeney, Shilique Calhoun, Cory James, and of course, Riley, all split time in the middle last season. And except for Riley, none of the others seemed up to the task. Granted, James was a rookie and perhaps, with a year and a second full training camp under his belt, he could potentially develop and be more effective. Possibly. Ditto that with Calhoun. Maybe.

We’ve very likely seen the ceiling on Heeney and it wasn’t anywhere near as high as everybody had hoped. Good guy, doesn’t quit, works and plays hard. It’s just that his skills are a bit limited – hence the reason, he lost the green dot last season.

And then there’s the case of Neiron Ball, who was effective against both the run and the pass – when he was healthy. Health has been his nemesis as he missed all of 2016 with another injury. To make matters worse, the team has apparently reassigned his jersey number – which, if you’re looking for signs, would seem to point to Ball possibly not coming back at all.

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Yeah, they’re probably going to use Obi Melifonwu in that hybrid role to cover tight ends the way they used Taylor Mays in that role. And that will likely be effective and help. But it’s still glossing over the bigger problem and really, just putting the proverbial Band-Aid over a bullet hole.

There are more question marks at linebacker than there are answers. Many had hoped those questions would be settled during the Draft, but it obviously didn’t break that way. And Oakland’s need for a playmaking inside linebacker is still as present today as it was before the Draft began.

Maybe McKenzie, being the reigning Executive of the Year, has some cards up his sleeve that he’s not going to show yet. Maybe, he brings Riley back to help fill that void. Maybe, Marquel Lee shows up big and is an instant impact player. Maybe, they can find some way to get more out of Heeney and Calhoun.

Or maybe, he’s going to surprise and delight us all with some under the radar move we never saw coming.

Until then though, it’s only rational for fans to sit back and wonder – given the team’s struggles in that department – what his plan is.