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.