The Raiders linebacker corps has been a glaring weakness the past few seasons but things are about to change in a big way for a defense on an upswing.
The Raiders linebacker corps entering the 2019 campaign was nothing to be excited about. In fact, the position group has been one that has been lacking for several seasons. Yet this offseason the Raiders made it a focus to not only improve the linebacker room, but with big name and fundamentally solid free agent signings, the group has improved vastly over just a season ago.
In 2019 the Raiders linebacker corps counted amongst its ranks their best player Vontaze Burfict. The oft-suspended linebacker was ejected from a game against Indianapolis in Week 4 never to return after being suspended the remainder of the 2019 season by the NFL.
After Burfict was lost for the year, the team was left with very few options to pick up the slack. They finished the season with just three starters and a caravan of the inexperienced.
The Raiders knew they had to make substantial investments in free agency at the linebacker position for a quick fix but also to build long-term depth. The current roster includes 10 – count ’em, 10 – linebackers.
Despite the absolute shopping spree the Raiders have been on building the linebacker corps, it’s very likely the 90-man cutdown will see a couple of the newly acquired players move on and once (and if) the roster trims to 53. The Raiders will likely keep five linebackers on the roster and could keep a few more hybrid players like rookies Tanner Muse and undrafted free agent Javin White.
No matter how many fill out the 2020 Raiders linebacker corps, this season’s group is more diverse and far more talented. The team did something in the draft that not many other teams were willing to do this year. In Muse and free agent White, and the exciting Lynn Bowden on offense, they have players who can wear several hats on their respective side of the ball and pitch in on special teams as well.
With the focus on gaining experienced talent at linebacker, instead of going the draft route, the Raiders made a clear statement they needed to – and will – get better quickly.
The team kept a few familiar faces with seasoned vets Marquel Lee, Kyle Wilber, and Nicholas Morrow returning. Justin Phillips also comes back after his rookie season and the team added second-year player Nick Usher, who spent the last couple of years in the CFL. Ukeme Eligwe was technically on the 2019 roster after spending prior seasons with the NY Giants and Kansas City Chiefs. These are all vets that have at least some familiarity with the Raiders’ defensive schemes.
Only a few of the returning players were regular contributors in 2019 and those appear to be the odds-on favorites to return to the team, however, likely not in the role they previously played. The Raiders made some big free agent moves that change the top of the depth chart significantly.
Since the Raiders linebacker corps was so thin last year, general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden heavily pursued and ultimately signed superstar Cory Littleton away from the Rams and former Chicago Bears backer Nick Kwiatkoski. Both are expected to play starting roles, with Gruden even alluding to Kwiatkoski being a strong favorite for the defensive Mic position – something that’s been lacking since 2017 free agent signing NaVorro Bowman took the job after just three days on the team.
With Muse, who can play linebacker or drop back into coverage as a safety, they can squeeze him in either position. Although White is being viewed as a linebacker mostly for the Raiders, his most experience in college was at safety so he can play there in a bind. White’s best chance of making the team is as a pure linebacker with high potential for success on special teams too.
Overall the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders linebacker corps looks much better at one of their previously weakest positions. Building the roster in free agency was a huge buoy to boost their production and the team has positioned itself well with a strong combination of talent and depth.
All signs point to a huge improvement behind the defensive line as the new Raiders linebacker corps will surely benefit the team heavily and may win some of the close contests the team was unable to finish out in 2019.