Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Oakland Raiders Have Big Questions at Linebacker

There are six rookie linebackers in the Oakland Raiders 2012 training camp. Not all of the rooks will make the final roster of course.  There are just a handful of veteran linebackers in camp, none of whom can be considered above average in NFL performance to date.  What this tells us is the defense will be hard pressed to solve stopping the run.

The defensive line is looking pretty solid with depth.  Though it will take more than big bodies and athleticism to shut down opposing running backs.  Having top linebacking is crucial to the success of the defense.

GM Reggie McKenzie could have sought out free agent veterans to bring in but thus far, only Phillip Wheeler qualifies as a veteran LB signing.

Does the coaching staff expect so many rookies to actually make the team and contribute?  Early progress in training camp indicates all of the rooks have a long way to go before they can be counted on to make a difference. The preseason will reveal more of course. The idea being live game reps will resolve inconsistencies.

A lot has been put on the shoulders of Miles Burris, a fourth round pick out of San Diego State. While he was the first pick made by the Raiders in the 2012 draft we have to put into context that he is a fourth rounder. Transforming that reality into an impact player in year one of his pro career is a lot to ask out of the guy. Burris does have the advantage over other rookie LBs in that he is getting first team reps due to veteran Aaron Curry being out with a knee injury.

The other rookies are not currently getting first team reps. This includes Chad Kilgore (Northwest Missouri State), Carl Ihenacho (San Jose State), Kaelin Burnett (Nevada), Mario Kurn (San Diego) and Nate Stupar (Penn State). With the exception of Burris, all of the rooks are longshots to make the final roster and if they do, are likely to be utilized for special teams coverage - an unheralded but much needed role.

The real unknown involves veteran MLB Rolando McCLain. Does he actually care?  Is he just doing enough to get by, putting in minimal effort to collect a big paycheck? Based on his NFL experience to date, it sure looks like he takes plays off sometimes. It has been widely speculated he may not be interested in or capable of living up to the first round talent he is supposed to be.

There are far too many questions surrounding McClain's performance as well as off the field issues that will loom for the entire season unless McClain has a breakout year. If he does not fulfill his potential, that leaves a very weak area on the field at MLB.  Not to mention the wasted investment.

In addition, there is Aaron Curry who has already blazed the path Rolando McClain seems headed towards. Curry is a fellow first round pick who was cast out of Seattle after not fulfilling his potential there. Draft pundits were sure Curry would be the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. It is unsettling that McClain and Curry are two key components to the 2012 Raiders linebacking unit.

Backing up McClain are more questions. Travis Goethel is not a rookie but he may as well be. He has been consistently injured since joining the team a few years ago.  Maybe he will show something in preseason games and finally make the team this year. Behind Goethel, is Nate Stupar.  According to beat writer reports out of camp, Stupar is not ready for prime time.

I can't believe I find myself wondering if the Raiders would have been better off keeping Ricky Brown for another season at MLB.

While Burris mans the weakside in place of unreliable Aaron Curry, the strong side is handled by veteran free agent Phillip Wheeler, to replace Kamerion Wimbley.

The strong side is so named because that is where an extra man is lined up on the offensive line.  The strong side LB has to account for that extra man (typically a Tight End) who will either be a blocker or a receiver on each play. So the strongside LB has to read and react quickly as well as get past his blocks to make plays.

In 2011, strongside LB Kamerion Wimbley had little success in pass coverage and he was also marginal against the run. In nickel defense situations an extra defender plays "centerfield" giving the LBs some flexibility to pass rush. Wimbley looked like a world beater in these situations where he became the club's most consistent pass rusher as a result. Though, this is not what is needed from Phillip Wheeler.

At Indianapolis last year, Wheeler had 47 solo tackles and assisted on 37 more. If we look at just his stats, he looks pretty good. As a team however, the Colts ranked 29th in the NFL against the run in 2011. The Raiders really need a strongside LB with a run stopping pedigree. You want a guy accustomed to reading run plays, making contact off the line of scrimmage when needed. Wheeler fit Indy's 4-3 alignment, cover2 scheme which did not rely as heavily on the LBs to stop the run at the line of scrimmage.  Wheeler was making most of his tackles conceding significant yardage.  The bottom line is Wheeler seems ok.  We just don't know how he will adjust to his new role with the Raiders as both a run stopper and being effective in pass coverage.

Maybe the new look Raiders defense will utilize 4 LBs at times. I expect a lot of guys will cycle in and out of the defense in 2012 as they may use different formations to try and find the right balance.

Do Raiders fans remember Chris Clemons?  He played for the Raiders in 2007 and opened everyone's eyes as a defensive playmaker, standing stout against the run and tallying eight sacks. I forget how he good he was against the pass but I get the feeling he is exactly what the Raiders need right now at strongside linebacker.  BUT... he recently renewed his contract with the Seahawks.

Isn't it ironic that the Raiders now have Aaron Curry and the Seahawks now have Chris Clemons. Curry flopped as a long term solution as the Seahawks' strongside LB.  The Raiders should have signed Clemons to a long term deal when they had the chance after the 2007 season.

Overall, there is a lot of rookie depth and highly questionable veterans at LB for the 2012 Raiders. Unless the coaching staff can get this unit to overachieve and the players mature into their roles, the defense is going to be seriously challenged to prevent yards.  Since as we know, every NFL opponent is ruthless in taking advantage of vulnerable areas of the field.

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