On Friday, when Derrick Johnson met with Jon Gruden, the Raiders likely knew Cory James’ fate. James was released after a “failed physical”. In the NFL, that is code for “no longer needed”, a transaction that happened on the same day as Johnson’s signing. James gave the team everything he had, even playing through injury. Ultimately, the new regime owned no sweat equity with James. Moreover, it was clear by season’s end that the Raiders needed fresh blood in the locker room. The front office refuses for pay top dollar for it. For this reason, Johnson received an offer and then signed over NaVorro Bowman.
When comparing the three middle linebackers orbiting the Raiders two things quickly become clear. First, the team needed to get younger and the importance of experience. In April, the Raiders hoped to do both at the same time by snagging top linebacker prospect Roquan Smith. When he didn’t drop to the Raiders, fans groaned as they knew he was the team’s best chance at youth and experience. The latter trait being paramount as the Raider defense consistently appears of position and lacking cohesion for years. Cory James, for all of his efforts, did little to stymie this habit. He certainly did not have the physical talent to make up for the lack of experience.
One thing the two elder linebackers certainly have on their side is extensive amounts of live reps against great offenses. Their foresight and anticipation allows them to disrupt plays, despite the clear loss in foot speed and athleticism. Although he’s the team’s oldest player, Derrick Johnson produced a higher coverage grade than either James or Bowman. Before losing the remainder of the season to injury, Johnson displayed enough agility and burst in coverage. If he can return at the same level, Johnson would be a massive boon for a team that hasn’t had an inside in years. Coupled with fantastic play recognition and a firm grasp of what to expect from division rivals, Johnson’s signing could give Oakland an edge.
More than anything though the addition of Johnson, waiving of James, and courtship of Bowman highlights the continuing lack of options. For as much as the front office did to beef up both lines, there were opportunities to try and add. Trumaine Edmunds would be the mostly likely candidate to morph into a draft regret for the Raiders. The former Virginia Teach standout is a physical freak and just 19 years old. Yet, for all of his potential the one thing Edmunds hasn’t done yet is play inside full time. As a result, Raiders passed on his tantalizing talent. This was largely the case for many of the middle tier prospects. They were either run defenders or coverage players, but certainly not both.
Still the Raiders will be in trouble, if Johnson cannot man the position for all 16 regular season games. With an incredibly thin linebacker group, the Raiders almost completely rely on their line to generate pressure. Also, the secondary to must maintain coverage. As with last season, there will be moments when Johnson and fellow linebackers Nicholas Morrow and Tahir Whitehead will struggle. The front office knows this, but it seems to be in line with their grand strategy. Oakland will buy low in the middle and fortify the surrounding positions. Time will tell if this is sound or if the Raiders are only spinning their wheels in the middle of their defense.