Rolando McClain was an All-American at Alabama, a first-round draft choice and an acclaimed defender who was going to be the centerpiece of a voracious defense when the Raiders selected him with the eighth overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft.
Nick Roach, on the other hand, wasn’t drafted out of Northwestern, signed as a free agent with the Chargers, was cut and then picked up in 2007 by the Chicago Bears.
But when the Oakland Raiders begin their 2013 season, it will likely be Roach playing middle linebacker instead of McClain. While McClain’s career has fizzled, Roach has been on the rise.
As the Raiders re-do a defensive roster that had huge problems in 2012 – and has been gutted by free agency and salary-cap casualties – they see Roach as a big upgrade over McClain, who fell out of favor last season, lost his job and will soon be released or traded.
On Thursday, Roach, 27, signed a free-agent deal with the Raiders reported to be for two years worth between $3 million and $4 million per season.
The Chicago Tribune reported the Bears had wanted to keep Roach, but were unable to come up with a deal to fit him under their salary cap.
Roach, who moved into the Bears’ middle linebacker position late in 2012 to take over for injured star Brian Urlacher, could be in the middle for the Raiders this September with second-year man Miles Burris on one side and another free-agent acquisition, Kaluka Maiava, on the other. Or, Burris could move inside with Roach on the strong side, where he played most of his 59 starts in Chicago since 2008.
Omar Gaither, who took McClain’s job, also could be in the mix, but is a free agent and his status is undetermined.
Roach has been a starter the past two seasons in Chicago, and in 2009. Last season he averaged nine tackles per game, had 1½ sacks, forced a fumble and had four passes defensed. His best season might have been 2009, when he had 82 tackles, two sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
The former All-Academic Big Ten player also was a quick study in taking over for Urlacher last season, and his play was praised by head coach Lovie Smith (since fired).
He also earned the respect of his teammates and coaches in Chicago, earning the team’s annual Brian Piccolo Award in 2011, given to the player who best exemplifies courage, loyalty, teamwork and dedication – which fits with Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie’s vow to bring aboard players with good character.
Roach’s play in the middle caught the eyes of several NFL teams this offseason, and his agent told reporters recently that as many as six teams were interested in him.
In Chicago, Roach built a reputation as a hard worker on the field and a good guy off the field. Linebacker coach Bob Babich, in presenting him with the Piccolo Award, said Roach’s play at strongside (SAM) linebacker was exceptional.
“In our scheme, playing the ‘SAM’ linebacker you do not get provided the opportunities to make as many plays as some of the other players in the system statistically,” Babich said. “In spite of the role, Nick’s work ethic and professionalism show just how loyal and dedicated he is to help his teammates and this organization.”