The Oakland Raiders went into the 2017 offseason with a dire need at middle linebacker, in fact, the front seven on this unit as a whole had some very underwhelming moments.
In spite of that, most of the free-agency work in the offseason was primarily addressing the offense; Carr’s lofty contract extension followed by the luxury acquisitions of Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook to an already elite offense. Okay, so the draft is where Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders brass were to address the MLB position, right? Well not exactly.
Looking back at MLB in 2016…
In 2016 Ben Heeney earned the infamous “green dot helmet” as the signal caller of the defense at inside linebacker after a promising camp & pre-season. Unfortunately, that ended quickly due to an injury after a few woeful early season performances. Veteran Perry Riley was an in-season addition to address the position as the standing depth was an issue. Riley came in adding an instant impact at a position of need, admirably taking on the challenge and playing quite well amidst the defensive circumstances.
Fast forward to September 2017 a few days before Week 1 with little to appease the needed improvement. For different reasons both Heeney & Riley are not even on NFL rosters and the Raiders’ depth chart is drumming up some serious distaste from Raider Nation.
Everyone had their popcorn ready for the 2017 NFL Draft, although it would become stale before a middle linebacker prospect was selected. The picks continually peeled off the board and very promising linebackers dropped in favorable rounds to the Raiders, but curious selections followed. At one point it felt it was not when the Raiders would draft a middle linebacker but if they would at all?
Then the 5th round came, and the vast majority of Raider Nation had to use an internet search to figure out who Wake Forest product Marquel Lee was.
Inside linebacker, Marquel Lee is a rookie 5th round draft pick chosen to ultimately fill arguably the most critical position of need for the Raiders defensively speaking. Not many 5th round draft picks face challenging circumstances as Lee has such as being expected to lead an entire defense at least communication-wise.
Let’s take into consideration the absence of any genuine competition or veteran obstacle in his off-season path. Lee was wining this job in any case.
The Raiders brass seemingly has the utmost confidence that Lee can succeed in a starting role in 2017; at least that is the only logic for their utter neglect for the position. From the off-season camp & pre-season footage by all accounts, Lee looks every bit of a 5th round NFL rookie trying to develop his skillset. Not a starting candidate on most NFL rosters for Week 1.
Lee projects to be a two-down linebacker as his pass coverage skills offer minimal help to the front seven assignments drawing tight ends or running backs. Any sensible NFL offensive coordinator would pick on Lee repeatedly. The Raiders defensive staff will have to sideline his coverage vulnerability at times and insert creative passing down packages; this is something that new defensive assistant Jon Pagano can address with his exotic background in secondary coverage packages while using hybrid players at times.
Lee has shown some ferocity playing downhill against run concepts while flashing some potential as a pass rusher. That production will be welcomed and keep him on the field as a developmental starting rookie on the Raiders defense.
The Depth (Who?)
Let’s suppose Lee struggles mightily or possibly gets injured? What type of depth remains at his position? Time to use an internet search engine again; meet Tyrell Adams. Adams won the backup role primarily because Jelani Jenkins left the organization in the form of an injury settlement. Adams, on the other hand, is another young developmental project leaving the Raiders dangerously young and bare at the position.
Here we go…
The Raiders defense cannot hide from it; they have to embrace maximizing Lee’s football IQ and develop him with special attention this season.
The search for veteran depth cannot possibly be over, and McKenzie will look to work his waiver-wire magic in-season as he did with David Amerson and Perry Riley. McKenzie has seen great success in the later rounds of the NFL draft, and let’s hope Lee is a shocking bright spot as the season goes on. If not, one of these three former NFL linebackers better be ready to lace them up; Jack Del Rio, Reggie McKenzie and Ken Norton Jr.