Oakland Raiders: Reggie McKenzie’s Success Doesn’t Hide Linebacker Issues

Dec 6, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders inside linebacker Ben Heeney (51) celebrates after a sack against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

How can Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie build on a playoff roster? Which position should he pay close attention to during the offseason?

Even successful general managers have blind spots in their attempt to build championship rosters. Overall, Oakland Raiders executive Reggie McKenzie has done a great job, but he’s missed several opportunities to address the middle linebacker position.

McKenzie deserves all the credit for dumping bad contracts and composing team-friendly deals. According to Spotrac, the Raiders owe the least amount of dead money in the league. Oakland no longer pays underperforming players to leave town. The Raiders executive doesn’t spread out guaranteed cash over the majority length of a contract. Instead, he often front-loads the deal, which gives the team an out after a year or two.

For example, let’s take a look at defensive tackle Dan Williams‘ contract. He signed a four-year, $25 million deal. Regardless of his performance, the team owed him money for the first two years. Entering his third season, the Raiders can release the veteran defensive tackle without paying him a cent going forward.

Ironically, Williams’ play declined in the previous season. He arrived with a penchant for plugging gaps and stopping the run. The 300-pound defensive lineman fell behind Justin Ellis on the depth chart. When on the field, he failed to live up to previous expectations as a solid run defender. He received a 55.7 grade on run defense, per Pro Football Focus. The Raiders can cut Williams and recoup $4.5 million in cash, per Over The Cap, which may be useful toward re-signing a productive in-house free agent or signing a quality player off the market.

Where does McKenzie fall short? He’s neglected the middle and inside linebacker position over the past few years. In 2012, McKenzie took the executive position and inherited Rolando McClain at middle linebacker. In the following year, Nick Roach took over and started all 16 games at the position. Unfortunately, concussions cut his career short. He didn’t play a single game beyond the 2013 season.

Thereafter, the linebacker choices fell terribly short of decent expectations. McKenzie should’ve read NFL.com’s scouting report on Miles Burris, who started 16 games at middle linebacker in 2014.

The assessment underscored his struggles while playing in space. Instead of lining up at his natural position on the outside, the coaching staff utilized the 2012 fourth-round pick inside. McKenzie decided not to draft a natural inside linebacker during the 2014 draft. In that year, third-round pick, Sio Moore, played on the outside.

Dec 6, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders inside linebacker Ben Heeney (51) celebrates after a sack against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With a chance to address the middle linebacker spot with a battle-tested field general, McKenzie signed a bargain-bin free agent in Curtis Lofton, who came off a poor season with the New Orleans Saints. Opposing quarterbacks constantly exposed the eighth-year veteran in space. Lofton also struggled to stop the run as a downhill defender. He failed to finish the season as a starter.

McKenzie didn’t have a solid plan B behind Lofton. He drafted Ben Heeney in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, but the Kansas linebacker needed time to develop into a starting-caliber player, and it showed during the 2016 preseason. Heeney flashed as a preseason star during his rookie year, but he faltered in space and missed several tackles during exhibition play in 2016. He lost his green-dot responsibilities before the first game of the season.

However, McKenzie’s decision to sign inside linebacker Perry Riley after Week 4 of the previous season ranks as the best acquisition he’s made at the position during his tenure as general manager. The seventh-year veteran started 11 games. Pro Football Focus listed him as the overall No. 15 linebacker during the 2016 season.

This year, McKenzie must approach the inside linebacker spot using a two-pronged approach. He can’t allow the defense to go another year without a true leader and playmaker at the heart of the defense. Furthermore, tight ends have gashed the Raiders over the past few seasons due to their inability to cover space in the middle of the field.

McKenzie will have several options between free agency and the draft to address the middle linebacker spot. Defenders with coverage ability such as Dont’a Hightower, Zach Brown and Kevin Minter will be available on the free-agent market. Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, Ohio State product Raekwon McMillan and Northwestern prospect Anthony Walker Jr. will be available between the second and third rounds.

As the Raiders rise to a Super Bowl contender, it’s time to add a linebacker who exhibits toughness, coverage ability and top-notch field awareness at the play-caller spot on defense.

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