Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was once an inside linebacker for the team. He was drafted in the 10th round and started right away on the way to a solid career with the team. So he probably can’t help but want to recreate himself by finding a late-round ILB to become a starter.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton and head coach Jack Del Rio were also ILBs in the NFL. They went in the second and third rounds respectively so they have an eye for the position as well. Since they came together in 2015, they’ve been looking for gems late in the draft.
In 2015, the Raiders started it off by taking both Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball in the fifth round. In 20116, they took Corey James in the sixth round and in 2017, they took Marquel Lee in the fifth. Ball looked like he could be the one at first but got injured too much to be able to stay.
Heeney flashed early as a rookie but missed most of 2016 and is still out to this day. All the attention is on Lee now because a lot of Raider Nation wanted to see the Raiders pick an ILB earlier. So far Lee looks solid against the run and like he has it in him to one day do okay pass coverage.
But right now, he’s getting beat way too much so that time for him has not yet come. When you have Del Rio and Norton on your staff, you should expect the Raiders to be able to develop an ILB. So Lee can develop by next year or even sooner but the guy that looks ready right now is Cory James.
I know the best ILB on the Raiders isn’t hard to be right now but James looks like he’s ready to break out. Last year, he struggled with his leverage to the sideline and often lost his run fit making the wrong read. He also needed to get stronger and more physical as it took him too long to shed blocks.
James also had some work to do in space as he had his share of issues in coverage. But he always had the speed to cover and get to the ball once he sheds blocks and locates the ball. As of Week 1 of the preseason, James seems to be a different player that’s ready to break out this year.
Strengthening his weaknesses now allows that 4.5 speed he came into the league with to show. He was all over the field on Saturday with seven tackles in one half, mainly against the opposing first team. Looking like a complete linebacker now, James could end up getting the green dotted helmet.
This lets us know just how well Del Rio and Norton and develop an ILB and what kind of athlete James is. Lee needs to improve his coverage quickly if he’s going to be a every-down ILB with the green dot. If not, Jelani Jenkins, who’s a good player when healthy, can replace him on passing downs.
He could also end up taking the WILL spot while James moves to MIKE spot if Lee can’t handle it. James, looks like the best ILB on the team that’s ready to break out so the LB corps should be built around him.