The 2011 season saw a completely new group of linebackers for the Raiders. The Raider linebackers had struggled considerably in run defense, so going into the 2010 offseason, upgrading the group was the number one priority.
The starting linebackers from the previous few years consisted of middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, weakside linebacker Thomas Howard and various starting strongside linebackers, none of whom could start on most NFL teams.
None of the starters from the 2009 season returned as starters in the 2010 season. And Kirk Morrison is now the starting middle linebacker for the Jaguars after he was traded away in the deal the Raiders used to move up into the fourth round to draft WR/KR Jacoby Ford. Morrison was deemed expendable after the Raiders had drafted his replacement in the first round.
That move as well as two other trades in the days leading up to the draft ushered in an entirely new group in the Raiders’ defensive backfield. There were mixed results but overall, it was an improvement. Here is what the linebacking corps for the Raiders currently looks like.
MLB Rolando McClain
He is the anointed savior of this Raider defense. He was the captain of the Alabama defense that led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship. McClain didn’t burst out of the gates as the Raiders’ new defensive leader. And outside of the body slam on little wide receiver Danny Amendola of the St Louis Rams in week two, McClain didn’t have a great first half to the season. But right around midseason, his play really started to pick up. By season’s end, he was looking like the player the Raiders hoped he would be. There is no telling if he will be a great player just yet. But there is no doubt he will be a fixture for the Raiders at middle linebacker for years to come.
SLB Kamerion Wimbley
Wimbley just signed his one year franchise tender so we know he will be a Raider at least until the end of next season (whenever that may be). He was arguably the best player on this Raider defense last season and well worth the third round pick that was sent to Cleveland to acquire him. The Raiders will continue to try and lock him up long term which is a task that will be easier next offseason when the team doesn’t have 26 free agents to think about re-signing. Wimbley led the Raiders in sacks (9) from the outside linebacker spot last season. He was often lined up as a defensive end in different looks. That is something he has a lot of experience in from his days as a DE/OLB in Cleveland’s 3-4 and going back to his playing days at Florida State where he played primarily at defensive end. He is a big and fast defender who plays well in coverage and even better in pressure and run support.
WLB Quentin Groves
The former round two pick by the Jaguars was acquired in a trade that sent one of the Raiders’ two round four picks to Jacksonville. He is a fan favorite with his “Tweet ups” and his community outreach. His play on the field didn’t stand out quite as much, though. Coming into the season, it looked like Trevor Scott had the inside track on keeping the starting job at weakside linebacker. But in week one, in a move that looked like it was sent down from upstairs, Groves got the start and Scott was moved back to defensive end. This proved to be a mistake as Scott was ineffective at DE and Groves didn’t appear to be an upgrade over Scott on the weakside. Groves is probably not the long term answer the Raiders needed on the weakside. He was a liability in run defense which proved to be, yet again, the biggest weakness on an otherwise top ten Raider defense. His position is one that is in most need of an upgrade though I think he is an important part of this team from a locker room perspective. He is what is affectionately referred to as a “glue guy.”
Ricky Brown is a bundle of energy. He is known for adding a spark whenever he is inserted into the lineup. Unfortunately, it doesn’t often translate well in regards to making plays. He is a solid backup and special teams contributor but he has had his chance to start in the middle and the strong side and it hasn’t gone all that well.
Travis Goethel showed a great deal of potential as a reserve middle linebacker last season. When Rolando McClain went out with injury midseason, he split time with Ricky Brown in fill-in duties and played quite well. The team took him out of Arizona State where he played outside linebacker. They saw that he may not have the speed necessary to play on the outside but he had the kind of intelligence that could translate well to middle linebacker in the NFL. So they took a flyer on him in the sixth round and so far it has looked like a good decision. He may never crack the starting lineup but he could end up being the primary backup to McClain in the middle.
Trevor Scott may have lost his job on the weakside last season but it was clear that the coaches thought the defense was better with him on the field. I could see him having every opportunity to get the job back as weakside linebacker next season. He had a solid season in 2009 after beating out former stalwart Thomas Howard. If Scott can’t win that job, he will not be a starter at all because Matt Shaughnessy has the starting defensive end job locked down.
Sam Williams has long been seen as an Al Davis scholarship player. I think I have predicted every year over the last three years that he wouldn’t make the team out of camp. But every season, there he is again. He does play quite well on special teams, but if Wimbley goes down with injury, Williams is a considerable step down. This is something the Raiders need to address.
Thomas Howard‘s time in Oakland may be at an end. The old law firm of Howard and Morrison is a distant memory. Morrison is in Jacksonville and Thomas is set to become a free agent. He was used sparingly last season in relief of starter Quentin Groves. With Trevor Scott and hopefully an addition in the draft competing for the job, Howard will very likely be allowed to sign elsewhere.
While the linebacking corps was improved last season, there is still much work to do. McClain and Wimbley have the middle and strong side locked down. The weakside needs to be upgraded and the strong side needs depth behind Wimbley. The run defense was still considerably poor last season and it doesn’t fall on the defensive line this time. The defensive line was one of the bright spots. It was the linebackers not filling the gaps that bit the Raiders in some pivotal matchups. They don’t shoulder all the blame but a good share of it.
Roster status: Weak
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