The Raiders have lacked stability at linebacker for years. Former general manager Reggie McKenzie wasn’t able to find long-term stability in the middle especially, with only Perry Riley and Navorro Bowman offering brief respite during the personnel man’s career.
He never used a draft pick before the fifth round on a linebacker, choosing instead to patch the position together with veterans and development projects that never panned out.
The same can be said for the weakside as well, leaving problem spots often exploited by tight ends and running backs.
That’s why linebacker has been a need for so long around here, even with some functional talent manning the second level in 2018.
The Raiders still need to add a piece to the position group, preferably a young talent with great range to play in the middle.
Let’s take a look at this Raiders need, and how it can be filled in 2019:
Players likely to stay in 2019
Tahir Whitehead: The roster’s only veteran linebacker left has been a group leader and someone playing much better of late. He’s set to may $6.375 million in base salary and a roster bonus, both of which become guaranteed on the third day of the new league year.
The Raiders could get out from under this deal without penalty, but do they want to? Whitehead could mentor a young group, or be productive even working with a drafted player. It’s no lock that Whitehead returns, but we’ll call it probable at this early stage.
Marquel Lee: The second-year pro has played since moving from middle linebacker to the strongside this season. That could be a long-term spot for him, even if the position doesn’t play a ton of snaps. He’ll compete to keep that SAM job in 2019, and have every chance to lock it down.
Nicholas Morrow: The undrafted second-year pro is playing much more, platooning with Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker. Morrow has some modern traits, with speed and agility to stick with skill players in coverage. There’s plenty to work on, but the potential’s there to carve see how Morrow develops in 2019 both in the middle and on the weak side.
Jason Cabinda: The Raiders are just starting to see what the undrafted Penn State alum can do. They’ll keep testing him, and he could be an option even if the Raiders sign/draft a highly touted player in the middle.
Players likely to go
Kyle Wilber: He was signed from Dallas to be a leader on special teams, and he has been just okay in that regard. He doesn’t help much on defense, and won’t be worth the $1.75 million non-guaranteed funds he can earn in 2019.
Raiders potential offseason plan
Free agency: It’s near-impossible to imagine top free agent C.J. Mosley will be allowed to leave Baltimore, but there are options here to pick some some useful experience.
Jordan Hicks is a middle linebacker worth exploring. He has good size and has been solid in coverage. He’s due for a raise after his rookie deal is done, but he could add some experience and stability on the inside. He has had some injury issues, but is a good player in the middle when healthy.
Manti Te’o might be a bargain after falling down the depth chart with New Orleans. He remains a good player who could pick up a starting spot in the right scheme. Denzel Perryman’s another Chargers draft pick who should be worth a look. If he can stay healthy and return well from a knee injury, he can be a productive player.
Guenther could also add former Cincinnati linebackers Preston Brown or Vincent Rey for depth or competition.
Draft: This is the spot where the Raiders can hone in on a headline-type player to join the linebacker corps. McKenzie may have been adverse to taking an interior linebacker high, but Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther could buck that trend with four picks currently in the top 33 overall. Or they could wait and find a groomable commodity deeper in the draft.
If the Raiders choose to take an interior linebacker high, Devin White seems to be the consensus pick. The LSU product was voted the team’s MVP, and is a tackling machine who is good at most everything. The Raider may have to trade up from the 20s to get him, though, which may be an issue.
It’s uncertain if Alabama's Mack Wilson will declare for the draft, but could anchor the middle if he turns pro. Michigan’s Devin Bush could be a target further down the line. Notre Dame’s Te’Von Coney is another option to address some needs on the inside.
Bottom line: The Raiders need a linebacker with pedigree in the mix, preferably a young one who can work well with Guenther for years to come. They could go for someone farther down the draft as well, but adding talent in this area is a must.