Will Raiders GM McKenzie break mold and draft inside linebacker early?

Will Raiders GM McKenzie break mold and draft inside linebacker early?

It’s not like the Raiders haven’t been looking for linebacker help. They just haven’t found any entering this week’s NFL draft.

They brought Zach Brown in for a visit, but he didn’t like the team’s offer and left without a contract. They have interest in bringing last year’s starting middle linebacker Perry Riley back, but their valuations don’t match right now and the veteran remains on the open market. They let two-year starter Malcolm Smith join the 49ers in free agency. 

Right now, the position group is a skeleton crew with brittle bones. Free-agent signing Jelani Jenkins is the only interior linebacker with double digit starts, and could man the weak side, or end up a roving backing.

There isn’t much experience or talent or depth there right now, meaning the Raiders might draft an inside linebacker early for the first time in general manager Reggie McKenzie’s tenure.

McKenzie took Miles Burris (fourth round) and Nate Stupar (seventh round) in 2012, and choose Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball (fifth round) in 2015. Sio Moore was a third round pick in 2013 but was a strongside linebacker and edge rusher before switching spots in deference to Khalil Mack, so that one doesn't count. 

None of those picks worked out well.

Neither have free-agent stopgaps Curtis Lofton or Nick Roach -- a quality player who fell victim to concussion issues – or waiver claim Ray-Ray Armstrong.

It’s been an unexpected black hole considering McKenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. all played on the inside.

“We want good linebacker play,” McKenzie said. “Both Jack and I know what a good linebacker is supposed to look like. We’re going to get us a couple, I hope, at some point before we play in September. Whether they’re in this draft or post draft or trade, somebody gets released, we’re going to do everything we can to upgrade our team; every position, including linebacker.”

While there are post-draft avenues to acquire inside linebackers, it might be time to go big at that spot.

There are attractive options likely available at No. 24 overall, where the Raiders can find the immediate impact starter they so desperately need. Let’s take a look at some who could be available when the Raiders pick.

Good fits: Raiders fans may shudder at the thought of selecting an Alabama interior linebacker with question marks. That’s expected after the Rolando McClain experience. Ruben Foster (6 feet, 229 pounds) is a top tier talent who could be slipping in this draft. He had a drug sample come back diluted at the NFL scouting combine, where he was sent home for arguing with a hospital employee. He has had shoulder troubles, though re-checks reportedly went well.

Foster is also an excellent player, the type of athletic thumper the Raiders are looking for. It’s still hard to see him sliding all the way to No. 24.

Florida’s Jarrad Davis (6-1, 238), however, seems like a near-perfect fit. He can cover and tackle, with a killer instinct necessary at that spot. He’s also praised as a high-character player and person focused on football. Analysts say he has good vision, closing speed and has physical gifts to help his continued development shoring areas of weakness. Davis has been well hyped recently, and there’s some thought he too could go higher than No. 24.

Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham should be available there, and could ready right away. Analysts says he’s a playmaker with good instincts, technique and play diagnosis. He’s a quality tackler with a nose for the football. He’s durable and fast enough to handle tight ends and running backs in man coverage. Detractors say he isn’t good getting off blocks and struggles with leverage at times, but Cunningham could be a productive three-down NFL linebacker soon.

LSU’s Duke Riley is a quick linebacker who can chase ball carriers down, and finished with a solid senior season. He might be a strong Day 3 pickup should the Raiders target other positions early in this draft.

Note: Temple's Haason Reddick wasn't mentioned here because he isn't expected to be available at No. 24. 

Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders


Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had a hand in drafting Josh Johnson a decade ago. The agile quarterback and Oakland native was a Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2008, Gruden’s last year as Buccaneers coach.

The pair will reunite in Johnson’s hometown. The well-traveled quarterback signed with the Raiders on Monday, the team announced.

Johnson will compete with Connor Cook to backup starter Derek Carr, and brings a veteran’s influence to the position group. It likely spells the end of EJ Manuel’s short tenure in silver and black. The strong-armed former first-round pick, who started one game last season, remains a free agent after a year with the Raiders.

This move should make Marshawn Lynch happy. He and Johnson are extremely close and together run the Family First Foundation, a charitable organization that does significant work for East Bay kids. Johnson and Lynch also played football together at Oakland Tech High.

Johnson has played 10 NFL teams prior to this Raiders stop, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game for some time.

Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'


Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed specific tools to run his running game. He wanted blocking tight ends and a bruising fullback, relics of a bygone offensive era.

“If Marshawn Lynch is the feature back, I think it’d be nice if we serviced him with a fullback,” Gruden said at the combine. … You need a blocking tight end if you’re going to slam the ball with a beast. So, those are two things that I’m looking for.”

Gruden said he wanted to import some old-school elements to help run with brute force.

Enter free-agent fullback Kyle Smith and tight end Derek Carrier. Welcome back, Lee Smith.

Then, on Sunday, Raiders made another vital move in this old school effort. They cut Marshawn Lynch a $1 million check.

The Oakland native’s roster bonus came due and the Raiders had no problem paying it, the clearest sign Lynch will be the Raiders feature back in 2018.

He’ll have a great chance to thrive in that role. The Raiders have a hulking, expensive offensive line (that still needs a right tackle). They have new ancillary blocking elements, and the centerpiece remains in place.

That last part was expected in recent weeks. The coaching staff, offensive line coach Tom Cable especially, wanted Lynch back. NFL Network confirmed those facts, stating Lynch will be around in 2018.

That was the case, even with Doug Martin’s addition. The former Tampa Bay back is expected to be a backup bruiser, someone who might put DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard’s job in jeopardy.

The Raiders can cut Lynch without a cap hit. Lynch is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses, with another $2 million available in incentives. The Raiders should hope to pay those; it would mean Lynch is running well.

The Raiders have given him a great opportunity to do so. They have solid blocking and a coach in Cable who helped him succeed during dominant days in Seattle.

Lynch proved he’s still got it in 2017’s second half, with 70 percent of his 891 rushing yards in the final eight games. He struggled early on, and upset some fans by helping the opposition during a scuffle with Kansas City. That mitigated a PR bump the Raiders looked for when signing a popular Oakland native just months after committing to Las Vegas long-term.

Jack Del Rio and staff grew tired of what they perceived as leeway given to Lynch unavailable to others, and probably wouldn’t have kept him on if still gainfully employed.

Gruden seems committed to Lynch this season, though nothing is ever 100 percent with an enigmatic rusher who doesn’t make private thoughts public.

His elusive, rough-and-tumble rushing style fits well with what Gruden wants, though he demands commitment to the team and sport. Sports Illustrated relayed a story of Gruden saying he needed a “full-time Lynch.”

If he gets that, the Raiders run game should thrive.