Nothing is set in stone when it comes to Paul Guenther’s depth chart. The festivities in Napa are slated to solidify the fluidity.
Yet, the Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator likely had two of his starting linebackers written heavily pencil in Derrick Johnson and Tahir Whitehead long before training camp.
I mean, head coach Jon Gruden dropped this shiny dime in front of a near 600 hyped Raider fans at Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro last week.
“Just to make the Kansas City Chiefs real mad, we signed Derrick Johnson,” Gruden told the crowd.
Johnson definitely has the upperhand in the fight for the middle linebacker starting gig. Despite his age (36 in November), the longtime Chief gives the Raiders a true coverage linebacker — injuries be damned. The 6-foot-3, 242 pound veteran is intelligent and that’s something Guenther and Gruden value highly.
Competition: Marquel Lee, James Cowser and Azeem Victor (rookie).
Lee is another in a long line of late-round prospects Reggie McKenzie and the prior coaching staff believed it could develop into a starting Mike. At a similar height and weight to Johnson, Lee doesn’t have the same agility but is improving as a tackler and is very young (23 in October). Cowser, on the other hand, is a former edge rusher who is very smart and gets the most out of his talents. But given all that, he’s not a serious threat to start. Victor, the neophyte, has the ability to play multiple linebacker roles, but special teams is where he’s gonna make his early bread.
Whitehead is the man tapped with strongside linebacker duties. The former Detroit Lion has sideline-to-sideline range and is a tackling machine. The 28-year-old is also a harrier of a blitzer and has played in sub-packages. But a cover linebacker he is not. He is a far superior run stuffer.
Competition: Kyle Wilber, Jason Cabinda and Victor.
Wilber, a veteran from Dallas, is a Rich Bisaccia guy and likely to spearhead the special teams coverage unit. He has experience at both outside linebacker spots, but his role as ST ace will be his primary duty. Cabinda and Victor are the rooks and will need time to transition to the NFL game. Neither is a serious threat to Whitehead.
That brings us to weakside linebacker.
Competition: Emmanuel Lamur, Nicholas Morrow, Victor and Cabinda.
Lamur is a familiar face for Guenther having played for the coach in Cincinnati. In 2014, Lamur drew 14 starts and racked up 92 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass deflections. In the following three seasons (last two in Minnesota), he totaled 70 tackles. A special teams force, don’t be surprised if he’s starting. Morrow can’t be ignored, either. The undrafted free agent impressed the prior coaching staff and played in all 16 games to total 60 tackles last year. He’s shown flashes of brilliance (immense speed and tackling ability), but is still raw at 23 years old. But Guenther has an affinity for safeties turned linebackers, it seems. Lamur was a big safety at Kansas State before becoming an NFL linebacker.