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Raiders’ Free Agency needs: Linebacker

2012 Free Agency begins next Tuesday, March 13th at 4pm.  The second in a series of looks at positions the Raiders may target.

2011 starters:
Strong side, Kamerion Wimbley
Middle: Rolando McClain
Weak Side: Quentin Groves initially, Aaron Curry after trade

Offseason Moves so far: none

On the Roster:
Rolando McClain
Kamerion Wimbley
Aaron Curry
Travis Goethel

Practice Squad:
Carl Ihenacho – signed to reserve/future contract 1/3/2012. DE in college, but listed as LB on Raiders.com

Restricted Free Agents: None

Unrestricted Free Agents:
Quentin Groves
Darryl Blackstock
Ricky Brown – not actually on the roster at season’s end but last team was the Raiders

Projected 2012 Starters:
Strong Side: ?
Middle: Rolando McClain
Weak Side: Curry? Goethel?

On the surface the Raiders look like they are returning all three starters on LB into next year – Wimbley, McClain and Curry – as all three are under contract.  However, of the three only McClain is really a lock to be around come training camp. 

Wimbley is carrying an $11 Million price tag into this season and reports are that the Raiders will cut him if he does not agree to restructure.  Wimbley’s agent has said they would listen to any offers the Raiders make but he’s unlikely to simply take less money, so any restructuring would have to lower his base salary and convert much of that money into a signing bonus. 

It’s unclear if the Raiders’ brass is willing to pay Wimbley that much money given that he’s a good but not great player.  He’s not a player that opposing offenses have to game plan around and he’s streaky – he get’s multiple sacks in some games and is held relatively silent in others.

Curry is also no guarantee to be on the team next week.  He’s due a salary of approximately $7Million into this new year and that’s too high for a player with his weaknesses.  Curry was stout against the run last year but a liability in pass coverage – the same problems that plagued him in Seattle and why they traded him to Oakland mid season last year for only a 7th round pick.  If Curry restructures, it seems likely he’d be able to come back but the new coaching staff will either need to successfully mold him into a good coverage LB or game plan around his weaknesses in coverage.

Travis Goethel is a talented LB who cannot get healthy enough to see the field.  Every year in training camp there are great reviews about his play but he is a big injury concern.  If the Raiders can get production out of him at all this year – as a starter or a backup – count it as a bonus.

The Raiders badly need assistance, here.  They currently have 4 LB’s on the roster, two of whom are likely to be cut if they don’t restructure, one of whom is a big injury risk and the last, McClain, has been underwhelming.

Coach Allen has said that he’d like the defense to be “multiple” which means they would be able to play not only a base 4-3 but also a 3-4 defense.  At this point there are questions whether they will even have enough linebackers on the roster to be able to field a 3-4 let alone play it well.

I expect the Raiders to sign a number of young linebackers for cheap this offseason – probably giving a good shot to a few undrafted free agent rookies to see if anyone can stick.  They need bodies in camp and they need competition to push whoever earns the starting spot.  There isn’t a player on the roster at this position that is guaranteed a starting spot.

It would also be ideal if the Raiders could identify and target a solid veteran in free agency to be able to start at one of the positions and solidfy the LB corp.

In free agency, there are a few impact linebackers available.  It will depend on who McKenzie and Allen covet and how much they are willing to spend.

The top linebackers include Curtis Lofton of the Falcons, who finished 5th in the league in tackles with 147 tackles (for comparison, the leading tackler on the Raiders was Tyvon Branch with 109.  The leading LB on the Raiders was Rolando McClain with 99).  Lofton is 25, so still very young.  While I would love for him to be on the Raiders, I would be surprised if they were able to outbid others who will be interested in him.

Other top available LBs are Stephen Tulloch of Detroit, Dan Connor of Carolina and David Hawthorne of Seattle, all of who have good potential.

An interesting option would also be London Fletcher of the Redskins.  He’s 36 at this point and will be 37 by the start of next season but he’s still extremely productive and he led the league in tackles last year with 166 total.  He’s also a very strong leader in the locker room.  He’s expressed interest in remaining with Washington and they appear to also be interested so that seems the most likely landing spot but if the Raiders could get him for a good price that would be a good risk/reward option for the Raiders.

Who do you want the Raiders to sign, if anyone, this free agency period?

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