No more games, no more trying to outsmart the other 31 teams in the league. The Raiders reluctance in drafting an inside linebacker early must end — with extreme prejudice.
Former general manager Reggie McKenzie — who wholeheartedly believed the middle linebacker position could be filled adequately with veteran free agents or late-round draft picks — is no longer in the draft room. Moreover, yes, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther subscribes to the same mantra.
“Some of these guys may not go until the fourth or fifth round but, to me, you can really make your team in rounds 4-7 and (undrafted) free agency,” Guenther said. “If you can hit on one or two guys there and they can become a really good team.”
It is about damn time the Raiders look for a starting inside linebacker in the early rounds — 1, 2, and 3. There is a good crop of prospects in the upcoming draft who can captain the defense form the Mike. In addition, the Raiders have both the draft capital and position to nab much-needed youth at a position that has not seen a quality homegrown presence since Greg Biekert. Point to Kirk Morrison, Perry Riley Jr. and NaVarro Bowman all you want, but Captain Kirk was the master of the downfield tackle, Riley Jr. and Bowman were one-year rentals and neither the Raiders nor the player could sustain the relationship. Fifth-rounder Marquel Lee, undrafted free agents Nicholas Morrow and Jason Cabinda and free agent signee Tahir Whitehead rotated at the position with no long-term solution in view.
That can all change in April, if the Raiders allow it to happen.
The premiere prospect at the position is LSU’s Devin White. Instinctive, athletic and a pure football player, the 6-foot-2, 236-pound White is an outstanding run defender who can make an impact in coverage and blitzing. He is scheme versatile and can excel in Guenther’s 4-3 scheme or a 3-4 set. White’s explosiveness and violence makes him the most complete package in the linebacker class heading into the draft. He is expected to be a top 20 player, if not top 10. Therefore, the Raiders at No. 4 may be too early and too late at 24 and 27.
Yet, there are a slew of other prospects that can fit the Raider bill lower in the first and into the third round — and to Guenther’s delight — maybe even later.
Alabama’s Mack Wilson and Michigan’s Devin Bush have the potential to go late in the first and in the second. What White is to run defense, Wilson (6-1, 238) is in pass coverage. The ‘Bama backer displays rare instincts and recognition in pass coverage and is an absolute nuisance when dropping back. If Bush (5-11, 232) were a big taller and longer, his draft stock would rise. However, it is hard to ignore the impact he made for the Wolverines as a violent hitter and tackler.
Clemson’s Tre Lamar and N.C. State’s Germaine Pratt are a pair of strong, physical and hit-you-in-the-mouth inside linebackers. Lamar (6-3, 243) was the tone-setting in the middle of the Tigers’ defense. He has a tremendous wingspan and can be placed on the edge to rush the passer. Pratt is a stout defender inside and brings pass coverage chops thanks to coming to school as a safety before converting.
One of the unheralded inside linebacker prospects that should catch the Raiders attention is Maryland’s Tre Watson. The 6-2, 238 Watson was a spark plug to the Terps’ defense as a tackling machine and a terror in pass coverage with five interceptions. In a league where a middle linebacker who can cover is a plus, Watson can be the Day 3 diamond Guenther likes to get.