In our ongoing series exploring the current state of the Raiders roster, Hayden Nadolny looks at the Oakland’s linebacker corps and who they might pursue if dipping their toe into the free agent market.
Reggie McKenzie was a linebacker. Former head coach Jack Del Rio was a linebacker. Former defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was a linebacker. And yet, linebacker remained an ever-glaring need for the Raiders the past three seasons. The Raiders have never truly been able to find a replacement for Nick Roach, whose career ended prematurely due to concussion. The off-ball linebacker positions are once again a big question mark going into 2018, though Jon Gruden and Paul Guenther have a bunch of young guys who, with the right development, may finally plug this hole long term moving forward.
The undrafted free agent out of Division III Greenville University was a pleasant surprise in training camp, forcing his way onto the 53-man roster. Given the ineptitude of this positional group, it didn’t take long for Morrow to see regular playing time. He is undersized for a linebacker but he improved as the year went on. His game against the Cowboys was a highlight, in which he held up well in coverage and played his gaps superbly in the run game. And, he made a big play in week one against the Titans. He is a raw prospect who at the very least should hold down a backup position that should be able to contribute on special teams.
James is a very hot and cold type of player. When he is instinctive, he flies to the football and is making plays everywhere. But when he is more reactionary, he falters. There is a lot to like about James’ potential upside, but relying on him as an important cog in the personnel group maybe a tad over-zealous. James missed 6 games last season due to a knee injury, though this shouldn’t affect his participation in the off-season program.
The linebacker position had been neglected by McKenzie the past off-season until he spent a fifth round pick on the rookie out of Wake Forest. The college tape suggested that Lee was stout in run support but had extremely poor hips and would be a liability when matched up on a running back or shifty tight end in space. These traits showed up immediately when Lee was juked onto his backside in a pre-season game when covering his man on the sideline. Lee was part of the linebacker rotation early in the year on obvious running downs, but was phased out immediately after the Raiders signed NaVorro Bowman. In hindsight, giving a fifth round rookie with obvious flaws in his game the green communication dot as ‘leader’ of the defense, was an unwise decision. Linebackers are being asked to cover more and more space in the modern game, so Lee needs to improve on his agility and coverage skills this upcoming off-season if he is to see more playing time.
Sheldon was signed as an undrafted free agent last off-season, before being waived at the final cutdowns. He joined the Raiders practice squad in November before being promoted to the 53-man roster for the final two games of the season, where he saw time with the special teams units. The best chance of him making the roster in 2018 is as a special teams contributor.
Impending free agents:
Bowman signed with the Raiders after being released by the 49ers a month into the regular season. Signed just three days before Oakland’s Thursday Night Football matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, he was thrown into the deep end. Not only did Bowman play the majority of defensive snaps, but he had the green dot on his helmet, receiving the defensive calls from the sideline to communicate to the rest of his teammates. Bowman had a very solid season, and at times he looked like the Bowman of old, before his achilles injury. Bowman will be 30 years old at the start of this upcoming season, but he still has some good years left in the tank. Gruden and Guenther have both made it clear that re-signing Bowman is a priority. The Raiders simply can’t afford to let Bowman go and continue to neglect the middle linebacker position like they did when they didn’t re-sign Perry Riley Jr., because this time, there might not be another Bowman available to bail them out.
“Sunshine” was a favourite of former defensive coordinator Norton Jr. He received limited snaps on defense spelling edge rushers Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, though he was one of the team’s important cogs on special teams. Cowser’s best chance of remaining with the team is to continue his solid special teams play moving forward.
As an exclusive rights free agent, it’s expected that Calhoun will at the very least, get a chance this off-season with the Raiders to change the narrative on him. To date, he’s been nothing short of an A-grade bust. He really struggled in his rookie season as he was transitioning from being a DE in college to now standing up in a 2-point stance off the ball at linebacker more frequently. He didn’t even make the 53-man roster going into the season. After being cut, he was not picked up on the waiver wire and subsequently re-joined the Raiders on the practice squad. After a few injuries hit the Raiders, Calhoun was signed to the 53-man roster in October. He did ok on special teams without wowing. He received snaps on D once Norton Jr. was fired, though he didn’t make any major plays. Logic suggests the Raiders won’t keep both Cowser and Calhoun on the roster this season, so this may be an interesting off-season battle to follow.
Free agency targets:
The free agency linebacker class of 2018 has some nice names but it isn’t exactly filled to the brim with standouts. This will make it even more imperative that the Raiders do what it takes to keep Bowman in silver and black. Assuming Bowman re-signs, the Raiders will only have a real question mark at the weak-side linebacker, given that when in base, Irvin will be at the Sam position. The Raiders need a three-down will backer who excels in pass coverage, so this rules out quite a few of the bigger names in the free agency class simply because they don’t fit schematically (like Zach Brown), or whose strengths are more toward run support (like Tahir Whitehead). The Raiders shouldn’t get sucked into paying a guy like Demario Davis either, considering that he’s only had one good season out of his six-year career. Given the lack of talent at this position in free agency, the Raiders will be hoping for a spike in internal improvement from their young group to reduce the need at this spot. Alternatively, investing a draft pick in a linebacker will be the most likely option if they still have a need at this spot after the initial waves of free agency die off.
If the Raiders elect to sign a free agent at linebacker, Nigel Bradham would be their best choice. Bradham is a long time starter in the NFL who most recently was on the Super Bowl Eagles defense. He is a true sideline-to-sideline defender who excels in pass coverage. From a schematic standpoint, he would be a perfect fit in Guenther’s scheme to compliment Bowman inside. Alternatively, if Bowman opts to sign elsewhere and the Raiders want to fill this hole with a vet, they Raiders could go after former Kansas City Chief Derrick Johnson, who is still playing at a solid level, albeit at 35 years of age.