The Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders Have Ignored The Linebacker Position For Too Long

No list of all-time Las Vegas Raiders greats is complete without men like Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, Rod Martin, Matt Millen, Greg Biekert, and Bill Romanowski. While Raider history is stacked with Hall of Fame talent at every position, men like these were the heart and soul of teams that prided themselves on never giving an inch and never making life easy for their opponents. And these men played one position: linebacker. The Raiders have a history of greatness at linebacker seldom matched by any other team. That’s why it’s jarring and disappointing to see the team basically ignore the position for the last decade or more.

When was the last time the Raiders had strong linebacker play?

Championship teams typically have strong linebacker play. Last year’s Super Bowl winners, the Los Angeles Rams, bolstered their linebacking corps with Von Miller midseason, and that paid dividends for them. Many of this year’s playoff teams have excellent linebackers. You also have the Philadelphia Eagles, who possess Nakobe Dean and Hasson Reddick. The Buffalo Bills have Tremaine Edmunds and Kyzir White.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have Willie Gay and Nick Bolton. The San Francisco 49ers have Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. That type of player anchors a defense, stuffs the run, and defends in the short to intermediate passing game. The Raiders have had an awful defense for years now, and a large part of that is because the team has neglected the linebacker position.

In 2019, the Raiders passed on Devin White for Clelin Ferrell. In 2020, they passed on Kenneth Murray, Jordyn Brooks, and Patrick Queen for Damon Arnette. During the Chiefs game, the Raiders were down to undrafted rookies like Luke Masterson and guys off the street at linebacker. Someone like Queen or White could have come in handy.

The Raiders, however, have not drafted a linebacker in the first round since 2010, when they took Rolando McClain from Alabama. McClain was a bust, one that Raider Nation doesn’t talk about much because there are so many other Raiders first-round busts to discuss.

A look back at the linebackers taken by the Raiders

Here is each linebacker taken by the Raiders over the last ten years in each draft class:

  • 2022: None
  • 2021: None, but Divine Deablo was converted to LB, Round 3
  • 2020: Tanner Muse, Round 3
  • 2019: None
  • 2018: Azeem Victor, Round 6
  • 2017: Marquel Lee, Round 5
  • 2016: Cory James, Round 6
  • 2015: Ben Heeney, Round 5; Neiron Ball, Round 5; Max Valles, Round 6
  • 2014: None (Khalil Mack was used primarily as a defensive end with the Raiders)
  • 2013: Sio Moore, Round 3

What a crew! None of those players made a real impact on the team. While there is still hope that Divine Deablo can develop into something special, he has been injured frequently and hasn’t exactly played at a Pro Bowl level when he has been healthy. In fact, the Raiders’ best linebacker recently was Nicholas Morrow, and he was allowed to walk in free agency and is now a member of the Chicago Bears. This is not the draft history of a team that cares about linebackers. This list indicates that the franchise’s philosophy is that linebackers aren’t important, an outlook that is just as incorrect as it is self-sabotaging.

Free agency has not been the answer for this team…

The Raiders’ lack of attention to linebackers in the draft has forced them to dip into free agency. Guys like Nick Kwiatkowski and Cory Littleton didn’t work out, but Denzel Perryman certainly has. How can the Raiders continue to ignore the linebacker position when the difference between the Raiders’ defense with and without Perryman on the field is so stark?

Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler must recognize the significance of the linebacker position, particularly the middle linebacker. McDaniels coached on Patriots teams with the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, and Junior Seau. Bill Belichick, who is the reason McDaniels has the Raiders job to begin with, was always one who understood the value of linebackers and used them in creative ways. It would behoove the Raiders to do the same.

Linebackers have changed with the times as well… 

It is nonetheless true that the viability of a middle linebacker who does nothing but stuff the run has diminished in recent years because of how football has evolved into a more pass-oriented game. Even Perryman has limited value against the pass. But when you look at the athletic traits of modern linebackers, these are not your grandfather’s plodding run-stoppers like Jack Lambert or Gary Plummer. They are athletic specimens who can run as fast as running backs and cover tight ends. Linebackers have changed along with the game itself, and anyone who discounts their importance isn’t paying attention.

Options for the Raiders in April?

Luckily for the Raiders, there are plenty of quality linebackers to be had early in the 2023 NFL Draft. If they decide to trade back a bit in the first round, they could pick the best of the bunch. Of course, the best is Clemson’s Trenton Simpson, who is sure to be a star in the league. Or if they wanted to wait until their second pick, Arkansas’ Drew Sanders and Oregon’s Noah Sewell may be there. If they again decide to wait on a linebacker, Auburn’s speedy pass rusher Owen Pappoe could be there in Rounds 4 or 5. There are plenty of good options for the Raiders, simply put. However, the only bad option would be to ignore the linebacker group yet again.

*Top Photo: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun

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