Oakland Raiders Use A Familiar Script To Address Glaring Hole In Defense

Sep 1, 2016; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Tulane Green Wave running back Dontrell Hilliard (26) runs the ball against Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee (8) in the first quarter at BB&T Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2016; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Tulane Green Wave running back Dontrell Hilliard (26) runs the ball against Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee (8) in the first quarter at BB&T Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders have had a glaring need in their linebackers group for a while now, and yet it was barely addressed. But after adding a few players in recent days, has the position been adequately addressed?

Oakland Raiders HC Jack Del Rio recently said that the team had done little to address the glaring hole in the middle of their defense – a hole that’s existed for the last few seasons and one they’ve consistently failed to address, if we’re being honest. Despite Del Rio’s assertion though, the Raiders seem to be following a familiar script in an effort to patch up that hole in the defense.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before – the Raiders have a dire need at the inside linebacker position. But instead of drafting a top inside linebacker, or making a play to snag one in free agency, GM Reggie McKenzie waits until late in the draft (usually the fifth round and later) to snag a linebacker. He may or may not also pursue a veteran linebacker – who may or may not have something left in the tank. And last but not least, he’ll also add a couple of UDFA’s that show some potential.

And when all of those pieces are assembled, they sit back, cross their fingers, and hope for the best.

It’s a script we’ve seen McKenzie draw from time and time again during his tenure. Curtis Lofton. Cory James. Malcolm Smith. Ben Heeney. Neiron Ball. Perry Riley. Those are just some of the names that have rolled through the middle of the Raiders defense over the last few seasons.

And of that not quite illustrious group, only Perry Riley had the sort of consistent play and successes on the field that could help plug that hole and elevate the defense as a unit. But obviously, the money isn’t right, and so, Riley remains out on the street as an unrestricted free agent.

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 /

Well, we’ve just finished up another NFL Draft and following his usual script, McKenzie waited until day three to add a linebacker to the roster. In the fifth round, McKenzie added former Wake Forest linebacker Marquel Lee to help shore up the middle of that defense.

And after their rookie mini-camp, the Raiders have added Najee Harris out of Wagner, and LaTroy Lewis out of Tennessee, Xavier Woodson-Luster out of Arkansas State, and Nicholas Morrow out of Greenville to the roster.

The rookies are added to a group that includes free agent addition Jelani Jenkins and incumbents like Heeney, Ball (if healthy), James, and Shilique Calhoun.

So, needless to say, once again, the Raiders find themselves with more parts than come in your standard IKEA bookcase. And like that IKEA bookcase, we have no way of knowing, when the final structure is assembled, if it’s going to actually hold up and not collapse.

Oakland’s linebackers, it’s safe to say, have struggled mightily in recent seasons. They’ve consistently been weak in run support, have been torched by opposing tight ends and pass-catching backs out of the backfield, and have generated little pressure on the quarterback.

To put it bluntly, they’ve been far more of a liability than asset for this defense for a while now. And if the Raiders are hoping to take the next step in becoming legitimate title contenders, they’re going to need better play from that unit. Far, far, far better play.

Given the – lack of alternatives – the rookie, Marquel Lee, is likely penciled in as the starter in the middle of the defense. No pressure, right?

Next: Smith His Own Worst Enemy, League Not Helping Him

The reports out of rookie mini-camp were encouraging – but rookie mini-camp and live game action are two different beasts entirely. But for his part, Lee doesn’t seem to be lacking confidence and is most certainly saying all the right things.

"“I still have a lot to learn coming into the league as a rookie, you know? I just want to come in and learn as much as I can from these guys and then take it from there.”"

Although McKenzie and Del Rio are doing their best to downplay the expectation and pressure on the rookie, in lieu of any other viable alternatives to their problem at this point, Lee is likely going to be counted on to step in and have an impact on day one.

The addition of Lee, Jenkins, Harris, Lewis, and the others, obviously doesn’t preclude the idea of McKenzie scouring the pile of discarded players once teams start making cuts. It also doesn’t preclude the idea of bringing Riley back into the fold.

But we don’t know what the future holds. And as of right this moment, all we can deal with is what’s on the field before us. And what’s on the field is eerily reminiscent of recent seasons past – a collection of disparate parts with no real idea if they’re going to work together.

A day before the rookie mini-camp, Del Rio said something that should raise a few red flags in the minds of fans.

"“I don’t know that we’ve adequately addressed our middle linebacker position, to be honest. I think we have some work to do there. The rest of our roster is pretty well situated, but we’ll be looking for a linebacker and we’ll continue to look, whether it’s the waiver wire, trades or available guys out there, veterans on the street. We’ll continue to look.”"

It seems pretty clear that Del Rio has concerns that the pieces they’ve assembled won’t form a cohesive unit once things start to get a little more real. Which means that if they don’t find another competent body to fill the position, once again, we’re all going to have to sit back, cross our fingers, and just hope for the best.