Inside linebacker questions remain for Raiders after NFL Draft

Inside linebacker questions remain for Raiders after NFL Draft

Inside linebacker might've been the Raiders most pressing need entering last weekend’s NFL Draft. An unheraleded skeleton crew mans that important position group, yet it wasn’t addressed until the fifth round.

Wake Forest’s Marquel Lee entered the mix at that point, joining free-agent signing Jelani Jenkins and a bunch of kids.

The Raiders remain thin and inexperienced at middle linebacker and on the weak side, positions primarily responsible for coverage and second-level run defense in the Raiders scheme. Jenkins is the only member with more than five starts.

A first-team isn’t set. There aren’t even frontrunners at this point, especially in the middle.

General manager Reggie McKenzie said before the draft he wanted to add "a couple, I hope, before we play (regular season games) in September.”

If Lee is one, another could be coming in free agency. Last year’s starter Perry Riley seems like a logical choice. He played well in 11 starts last season, adding stability to the interior defense. Player and team discussed a reunion earlier this offseason, but couldn’t agree on contract terms.

McKenzie isn’t rushed to add another body. He’d prefer to see what he has on the roster first. He hasn’t seen Jenkins practice in Raiders team drills, Lee work as a professional, Ben Heeney after recovering from ankle surgery or Cory James entering his second season. He hopes starters emerge from that group

Riley could be an option for the right price, though last year he proved willing to wait into the season to sign with a team.

“That’s an ongoing evaluation,” McKenzie said Saturday after the NFL draft. “We’ll see what we got coming in. We’ll have the rookie mini-camp and then we’ll have everybody together. If we need to add someone else, we will. No, I never close the door until it’s time to get the roster together.”

The Raiders have struggled for answers at middle linebacker. Nick Roach played well in 2013, but suffered a career-ending concussion the following preseason. Miles Burris was an ineffective fill-in. Curtis Lofton didn’t work out in 2015, and Heeney couldn’t secure his starting job before breaking an ankle.

The Raiders could get creative on passing downs and use an extra safety, but they hope a young player puts a stranglehold on the middle linebacker spot in the base defense at least.

Jenkins has primarily played weakside linebacker, but McKenzie likes the free agent signing from Miami at both inside spots.

“He’s started a lot in this league,” McKenzie said. “He too, is another guy that’s highly instinctive and aware football player. He plays in space. Now, his game more is the weak inside linebacker, but he’s played both. But, he doesn’t have the same stature as Marquel Lee in size. But, he is a good, physical football player we just wanted to add to the roster. So, he’ll compete with the rest.”

Lee has the potential to be a quality two-down linebacker. He’s 6-foot-3, 240 pounds with the strength and aggression to play inside linebacker well. He has range and says he can cover well.

“I’m a physical player at the line of scrimmage,” Lee said. “I shed blocks really well, so I feel like I can go sideline to sideline as well. Just being a motor type guy. My motor, I don’t see it ever stopping in games. Just being put where I’m best seen fit. Anything I’m asked, I’ll do to help contribute to the team. That’s the type of person I am. You can ask anybody that’s been around me for my whole life. I’m just trying to learn.”

McKenzie told Lee he’ll have a chance to compete for significant playing time as a rookie.

Neiron Ball hasn’t played since his rookie year. The 2015 fifth-round pick flashed briefly before suffering a knee injury that required surgery and kept him out of 2016. They gave his No. 58 away last season, and McKenzie said he still isn’t ready to enter an open competition to play inside linebacker.

“Neiron is still going through rehab,” McKenzie said. “So, it depends on how he feels physically. We feel good about Marquel and whomever else we bring in. We’re just going to let them all compete. Heeney will come back. We got Jelani. We got all the other veterans that were here from last year. We’re just going to let it play out and see how it goes.”

Raiders roster turning over quickly with Gruden in town


Raiders roster turning over quickly with Gruden in town

The Raiders went quiet during free agency’s first wave. They avoided paying heavy freight for some top talent with name recognition, but came on strong as last week grew late.

Most moves came from Thursday on, with a flurry of activity that radically changed the Raiders roster. There was something for everybody, with a receiver, and critical nuts and bolts of Jon Gruden’s run game. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s starting lineup got upgraded at linebacker and the secondary. A versatile defensive lineman joined the crew. Special teams got a new long snapper and some core coverage guys.

Michael Crabtree got cut. Cordarrelle Patterson was traded. Gruden found an upgrade over one guy, didn’t need the other.

The Raiders signed 10 players through Sunday night virtually guaranteed to make the 53-man roster, and Griff Whalen's got a shot. That’s a roughly 20 percent roster turnover right there – a draft class is also on the way – and the Raiders aren’t done in free agency.

Receiver Ryan Grant’s reportedly due in Alameda on Monday, and he might not leave. The Raiders have Patterson’s money to spare, assuming, of course, Grant passes a physical.

A bargain defensive tackle might be coming down the pike. Maybe. Time will tell on that front.

The Raiders had $20-plus million in salary-cap space entering free agency, but managed to spend smart in an attempt to get quality and quantity.

They’re believed to be close the salary cap after all this activity, but can create space by releasing veterans without guaranteed money. That happened with Sean Smith and the Patterson trade. Others can be cleared easily to import players who fit Gruden’s style and come available late.

Significant roster turnover is common with new coaches, who need fits for new offensive and defensive systems. Gruden was able to move fast in those aims, armed with significant clout in roster construction.

The head coach got hired in January, hired a staff to build schemes and evaluated the roster. The Raiders have some excellent pieces, Derek Carr and Khalil Mack chief among them.

It was also clear Gruden considered the roster lacking on several fronts. He said the Raiders weren’t getting enough from their last three draft classes, an accurate statement to be sure. He purged some productive members of last year’s squad he didn’t consider fits, and those already gone won’t be the last.

Recently signed free agents will take jobs. So will draft picks selected next month, as Gruden works to overhaul a roster and get more out of talent already on the roster.

It’s clear he’s heavily involved in picking these players, and will be responsible for getting the most out of the group, understanding full well it will probably take a few offseasons to get it just right.

Let’s take a look at key free-agents the Raiders have added so far, and what to expect from each guy:

-- WR Jordy Nelson: He’s the offseason’s big fish. The Raiders expect Nelson to be a locker room leader and a steadying on-field presence. They had no problem choosing him over Crabtree as part of a complete makeover at receiver.

-- CB Rashaan Melvin: Pencil him in to start opposite Gareon Conley. Better yet, use pen.

-- LB Tahir Whitehead: He’s a versatile talent with experience at every linebacker position, with success on the weak side. Whitehead can play in the middle, a role he might assume if NaVorro Bowman isn’t re-signed. Bringing Bowman back remains a possibility, however, especially if his market isn’t stout. Whitehead should also help Cory James and Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow grow.

-- S Marcus Gilchrist: He isn’t a dynamic playmaker, but is a solid versatile talent who can play either safety spot or in the slot. He should start right away.

-- RB Doug Martin: He’ll be a secondary option to Marshawn Lynch, but should see significant carries. His presence might spell trouble for DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard.

-- FB Keith Smith: Gruden said told the former Cowboy he has big plans for him. The blocking fullback will be integral to this scheme, and he’ll certainly help on special teams.

-- TE Derek Carrier: A blocking tight end can help in the run game, and has versatility required to catch passes. He’ll join Lee Smith in jumbo sets.

-- DE Tank Carradine: A solid run stopper who will compete for time at base defensive end, but believes he can be a better pass rusher than his stats suggest.

-- LB Kyle Wilbur: The Raiders need core special teams players. Wilbur can be one, and could help on defense in a pinch.

-- LS Andrew DePaola: Jon Condo’s replacement.

-- WR Griff Whalen: The Stanford product will compete for a return gig, and a spot as a backup receiver.

Source: Raiders trading veteran WR Patterson to Patriots


Source: Raiders trading veteran WR Patterson to Patriots

The Raiders are trading receiver/kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson to the New England Patriots, a league source told NBC Sports Bay Area on Sunday afternoon.

The Raiders will receive a fifth-round pick, while sending a sixth-round pick back to New England, according to the NFL Network. Patterson must pass a physical to complete the transaction, NFL Network is also reporting.

The moved frees $3.25 million in salary cap space for a Raiders team that was up against the NFL spending threshold. Former Washington receiver Ryan Grant is reportedly visiting the Raiders’ Alameda complex soon. Grant is available after a failed physical voided his free-agent deal with Baltimore. He passed a physical in Indianapolis, NFL Network reported, but left the Colts without a contract. Grant is a surehanded target who averaged 12.7 yards per receptions and had just three drops in 63 targets. 

The Raiders will likely add another receiver if Grant doesn't come aboard. One of head coach Jon Gruden's preference could be found in the NFL draft if Grant goes elsewhere.

The Raiders also added receiver Griff Whalen, a Stanford alum who has some returning experience, before free agency began. 

Patterson proved a productive, explosive member of last year’s offense, primarily as a gadget player. Patterson finished the season with 31 catches for 309 yards, and had 13 receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

He never became a steady, standard receiving option, and wasn’t able to shed his reputation as a relatively poor route runner. That likely made him expendable in  Gruden’s eye. He needs quality routes and steady hands from his wideouts.

That outweighs Patterson’s prowess returning kickoffs. The two-time All-Pro averages 30.2 yards per kickoff return over five seasons, with five return touchdowns to his credit.

The Patriots are well known for excellent special teams play, and needed a returner with Dion Lewis leaving for Tennessee in free agent. The Super Bowl runners up now have a dynamic returner and gunner to pair with solid coverage and return units.

This is a developing story. Check back for further details.