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Raiders have questions, we’ve got answers: Linebacker

Last season it seemed like every time a running back made it past the defensive line, he had plenty of space to roam. But as I pointed out last week, the defensive line hasn’t exactly been stopping them initially. There has been a revolving door at strong side linebacker mostly because of injuries. But even when healthy, there wasn’t anyone who could stake his claim as a solid starter. The list of linebackers that were thrown out there at strong side and to spell Morrison and Howard was definitely not a list of “who’s who” but rather, “who the hell?” Sam Williams, Robert Thomas, Jon Alston, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Marqis Cooper, and Ricky Brown. When Ricky Brown is the only one out there who is working hard enough to earn a starting spot, we have problems. Especially when he goes down with an injury midseason and all we have is special teamers to replace him. This position is in a state of absolute emergency and needs immediate attention.

Many Raider fans have placed the blame on the shoulders of Kirk Morrison, with the remedy usually being to move him to the strong side and find a replacement at middle linebacker. Far be it from me to say what the correct move is because obviously the coaching staff hasn’t had an answer either. But any way you look at it, there are answers out there at either outside linebacker or middle linebacker. Here are a few names that could come in and help immediately — and also be a possible long term solution.

Aaron Curry. OLB, Wake Forest

Curry can basically do it all. A great all-around linebacker who can stuff the run, drop into coverage and rush the passer. He would be an immediate upgrade on the strong side.

Curry should walk right into an impact role in the Raiders defense. He can run 4.6 and find the ball all game long.

In his first season on the field for the Demon Deacons, Curry earned Freshman All America honors after tallying 45 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and one sack. His numbers almost doubled across the board as a sophomore, finishing the year with 83 tackles, 8.5 for loss, three sacks and an interception. Curry’s junior year was his best to date, however. He continued to improve his game, again earning All ACC honors. He finished the year with 99 tackles, 13.5 for loss, three sacks, and four interceptions. Three of those picks were returned for touchdowns. Curry saved his best for last, earning numerous All America honors and winning the Butkus Award after posting career highs of 101 tackles, 15 for loss, 2.5 sacks and a pick.

Curry is a complete linebacker prospect. He has the size, speed, strength, and instincts to be an impact defender at the next level. Curry has good size and is adept at stopping the run. He will weed through the traffic to get to the ball carrier and make the play. Curry also shows the ability to make big plays in coverage. His awareness and ball skills are very good for a linebacker, and his six career interceptions are a testament to this.

Aaron Curry is part of a deep linebacker class that could produce a number of special players. His excellent senior season has him in contention to be the top linebacker selected.

James Laurinaitis, ILB, Ohio State

Though some critics believe he played his best ball earlier in his collegiate career as a Buckeye, Laurinaitis is a solid and polished product who should make a quick and easy transition to the NFL. His technique is well developed and his field awareness and intangibles are two of the best parts of his game. He could be a longtime pro in the Zach Thomas mold.

Laurinaitis brings the talent to play immediately outside but could be the eventual replacement inside. In fact, he can play all three linebacker spots

Laurinaitis took over inside as a sophomore, where he made the loss of AJ Hawk seem not so large. He finished the year with 115 tackles, 8.5 for loss, four sacks, five picks on his way to winning the Nagurski award. He did not let up as a junior in 2007, finishing the season with 121 tackles, 8.5 for loss, five sacks, and two interceptions. Laurinaitis won the Butkus award, while being named to virtually every All American list you can think of. He was again one of the most productive college linebackers as a senior, posting 121 tackles, 5.5 for loss, four sacks, and two interceptions.

Laurinaitis is a complete player that does not take a down off, and can make an impact in every facet of the game. He is very intelligent on the field, reading the play and flowing to the action without much effort. He is a natural on the field and always around the ball. He plays sideline to sideline but quickly turns upfield to get to the ball carrier and bring him down. His nine sacks over the last two years show his effectiveness at blitzing when asked. What truly sets him apart, though, is his ability in coverage. Laurinaitis shows excellent awareness in coverage and can easily drop into coverage and find the football.

With his all around skills, it is difficult to find a fault in his game. He may not be the absolute physical specimen some are at linebacker but he is solid across the board and makes up for it with his instincts.

James Laurinaitis would have been a high first round pick last year had he declared, but he chose to return to college. Depth at the LB position would be the biggest issue with Laurinaitis’ draft stock this year but yet again he is rising up draft boards. But then again, three straight seasons of over 115 tackles is hard to argue with.

Brian Cushing, OLB, Southern California

Cushing is a versatile talent who can hold up in both run defense and pass defense, and he has a knack for coming up with the key play at the key moment.

Brian Cushing’s stock seems to fluctuate like the stock market. He was mentioned in the top 15 preseason, knocked out of the first round in most mocks by mid season, and he’s now back into the mid to lower first round mix. Cushing reminds many of an Adalius Thomas type football player who can play defensive end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker, and possibly strong safety in a pinch.

If he could somehow fall out of the first round, he would be a great value even with the 8th spot in the 2nd round. He has those qualities that NFL gurus like to call “intangibles” and he always seems to be in position to make a play.

Clint Sintim, OLB, Virginia

After redshirting as a freshman in 2004, Clint Sintim started every game as a freshman in 2005 and never looked back. His numbers steadily improved over his career and by his junior year Sintim was a leader of the defense and recorded 77 tackles, ranking third on the team. His senior campaign he totaled 70 tackles, 11.0 sacks and 13.0 tackles-for-loss. His 0.92 sacks per game average in 2008 was the best among linebackers in the entire nation and he was rewarded with second-team All-ACC honors.

Despite all the sacks, Sintim is a well balanced outside linebacker. He can deliver the big hit, get to the quarterback, and drop back into coverage. At 6-3 and 254 pounds, he has the size to be a dominating linebacker in the NFL.

He has supreme versatility with his best fit being as a 4-3 SAM or a 3-4 OLB. He is athletic enough to be a consistent force in the pass rush as well as taking all of the appropriate angles to ball-carriers.
He is a tough, aggressive, physical player and a powerful tackler with a non-stop motor. He is also said to be a vocal team leader which would be a welcome sight in Oakland.

He may not have received much recognition during the season due to the relatively poor performance of the Cavaliers, but that will change now. Sintim could end up being a first round selection. But if he manages to slip out of the first, he would be a great pick for the Raiders in the 2nd round. I would certainly love to see it come to pass.

Coy Wire, OLB, Atlanta Falcons

Wire was considered no better than a reserve linebacker prior to this season. Then Michael Boley began to struggle and Wire replaced him in the starting lineup. He played well against the run which is exactly what the Raiders are looking for in a linebacker. Even though he started over Michael Boley, Boley is still held in a higher regard on the open market due to his stellar season two years ago. Wire will not have a lot of teams beating down his door to sign him which should keep his price down and for that reason he would be worth taking a chance on.

I fully expect the first thought to be “Where is Rey Maualuga on this list?” I have a few problems with Maualuga. First off, I think Aaron Curry and Laurinaitis are better. Second, the Raiders are more desperate for an outside linebacker and that is what Curry does. Third, Maualuga has proven that he cannot play the outside or rush around the edge and do we really want to spend that high of a pick on a guy with such a glaring weakness in his game? Fourth, Maualuga pretty much disappeared in the Rose Bowl. I think Rey will go in the first round and deservedly so — just not with the #7 pick. Morrison has played great at MLB in previous years and with a solid SLB, I think he will return to form. If not we should have someone who can play well on the outside until that time.

All in all, this is a strong class for linebackers which makes it the perfect year to grab a great linebacker in the second or third round if not with the #7 pick. The free agent class has the opposite problem. There are very few great players out there which means that some lesser names will be getting overpaid for their services. I know –  ”What’s new?” right?