The Raiders have cycled through Miles Burris, Curtis Lofton, Ben Heeney and Cory James as starting middle linebackers since 2014. Two of the aforementioned players no longer play in the league and two joined the team as mid-late draft picks. It’s time for McKenzie to address the position with a talent who possesses higher upside.
Alabama prospect Reuben Foster racked up 115 tackles, 13 for a loss and five sacks during his senior season on the collegiate level. His speed and athleticism allow him to thwart the play before it develops in the backfield:
Has elite sideline-to-sideline range. Tough as nails. Brings swagger to a linebacking corps. Never passive and always means it. Willing to take his shots downhill and into gaps. Lands strong warning blows on climbing guards early in the game. Coverage ability is an asset. Logged 10 passes defensed in 2015.
While he brings all the necessary skills to excel on the professional level, concerns about his shoulder have gained steamed almost a week before the draft on April 27. First Round Management CEO, Malki Kawa, tweeted about Foster’s recovery after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, per ESPN’s Adam Caplan:
Former Alabama LB Reuben Foster recently had right rotator cuff surgery, a league source said. Teams were informed of the surgery.
The shoulder surgery along with the NFL Scouting Combine incident, which resulted in the league booting Foster before his workouts, could affect his draft stock. ESPN’s Adam Schefter confirmed the confrontation:
Bama’s Reuben Foster, a potential top-10 pick, is being sent home from combine for heated argument with a hospital worker, sources tell ESPN
If he falls outside of the top 10 picks, McKenzie should pick the phone and inquire about solidifying the middle of his defense.
The Raiders have talent on the defensive line. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. must stay healthy. Jihad Ward has to take the next step in development. Denico Autry flashes as a pass-rusher, he’s racked up three sacks in each of the previous two seasons. The former undrafted free agent must work on shedding blocks to contribute to the run defense. With another full offseason program, defensive tackle Darius Latham could develop into a consistent contributor.
The linebacker corps doesn’t have comparable promising or proven talent.
The Raiders didn’t re-sign linebacker Perry Riley, which leaves the starting position open without reliable depth. Ben Heeney landed on injury reserve after four games, and Neiron Ball didn’t play a single snap in the 2016 season. The defense needs a spark in the middle with an explosive player who’s going to set the tone for the entire unit.
If the Raiders fear Foster’s shoulder injury may keep him out of action longer than expected, the front office could re-sign Riley as a placeholder at the position.
McKenzie isn’t opposed to selecting prospects with medical concerns in the first round. In 2013, he traded back for cornerback D.J. Hayden, who suffered a life-threatening injury on the practice field as a senior at Houston. He played half his rookie season. With the No. 14 overall pick in the previous draft, the Raiders acquired safety Karl Joseph who tore his ACL as a senior at West Virginia. He stood on the sideline in the spectator role for the first two games of his rookie campaign.
The Raiders have eight selections this year. McKenzie has shown the ability to hit at any point during or after the draft with free agents. Coming off a 12-4 season with specific roster needs, specifically on defense, the front office must consider a bold move to put a solid defensive centerpiece in place for the next four to five seasons.