Raiders hoping Marquel Lee can solve riddle in the middle

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) When the Oakland Raiders open the regular season in Tennessee on Sunday, rookie Marquel Lee will become the team’s fifth starting middle linebacker in five years.

That hardly suggests stability for a team coming off its first playoff appearance in nearly 15 years and it’s one of the primary reasons there was so much chatter about the position in the offseason, much of it negative.

Not that Lee, a fifth-round draft pick, seems bothered by it. One of two rookie starters on Oakland’s defense, the former standout at Wake Forest has tried to stay away from the noise and has spent this week focusing on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

”I heard it but I don’t really let it get to me,” Lee said. ”I know what I’m here to do. I know my abilities and I know what I can do for this team. I’m trusting that’s going to get me through and help me be a very productive player and a very good player for this team.”

The Raiders certainly hope so.

Middle linebacker has been a weak spot for Oakland’s defense for much of the past decade and there hasn’t been much stability at all since Rolando McClain started three consecutive years from 2010-12.

The problems have manifested in a variety of ways, too, although Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. appears convinced that Lee may be the answer.

”He’s very talented,” Norton said. ”Big body, really smart, cares a lot. And when you combine the care with the passion and the talent, and a guy who really wants to learn, my experience (is) you get a lot of good things from the players.”

Lee had an uneven preseason after being inserted into the starting lineup early in training camp. He made a handful of big plays and showed good potential at times, while at others he looked like a typical rookie trying to adjust to the NFL level.

Now he’s preparing to face the Titans where he figures to get a lot of attention from Mariota.

”He’s been a very versatile player going back to his college days in Oregon,” Lee said. ”They do a lot of things with him, run a zone read and everything. I feel confident in our preparation that we’ll handle it. I’m very excited. It’s my dream. This is what I’ve been wanting to do my whole life.”

Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was equally eager to see what Lee and the rest of Oakland’s oft-criticized defense can do.

”I can’t wait to see our guys play,” Del Rio said. ”We put a lot of time and effort into developing our guys. That’ll remain a story until it’s not. If he’s doing real well, I’m sure you won’t ask about it much. We’ll just let that unfold. It’s a team game. We’ll put our team against their team.”

While Lee will be anchoring the middle of Oakland’s defense, the Raiders are still uncertain about who will be kicking for them. The team signed Georgio Tavecchio to its practice squad Friday as insurance in case Sebastian Janikowski’s troublesome back prevents him from playing in Tennessee.

Janikowski has been limited all week in practice and is questionable.

Notes: Fullback Jamize Olawale (quad) and reserve safety Keith McGill III (foot) have been ruled out. First-round draft pick Gareon Conley (shin) and weakside linebacker Cory James (knee) are also questionable. Max Valles, a sixth-round draft pick by Oakland in 2015, was released from the practice squad to make room for Tavecchio.

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