This offseason, the Raiders had revamped their secondary and defensive line. They brought in two starting cornerbacks and a handful of veterans at defensive tackle and end.
But until the draft, the linebacking corps remained mostly the way it was at the end of the 2013 season.
Nick Roach is returning at middle linebacker, as are Sio Moore on the strong side and Kevin Burnett on the weak side. Plus, the Raiders have Miles Burris – a starter two seasons ago as a rookie who played just a handful of games because of injuries in 2013 – and Kaluka Maiava and Kaelin Burnett.
Now, however, the Raiders have added Khalil Mack into the mix, and as the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, the former star at Buffalo will get playing time. So, who will get sent to the bench, and who will start?
With organized team activities, minicamp and training camp still to go until the season opener in September, there’s plenty of time for defensive coordinator Jason Tarver and head coach Dennis Allen to sort out the pieces and come up with a plan.
But Allen has made it clear that Mack will be on the field as a “three-down player.”
“I’m not going to get into exactly where he’s going to play,” Allen told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “I’ll tell you this – he’s going to obviously have a big role in what we’re going to do, and he’ll be a guy that we’re going to use to send after the quarterback in a variety of different ways.”
The Raiders could go younger, and have Mack step in for Kevin Burnett on the weak side, keeping Moore on the strong side. Or, Moore – who showed great mobility and pass-rush skills as a rookie -- and Burnett could share weakside duties, depending on the situations, with Mack on the strong side.
There’s even a possibility Mack could rush as a defensive end in some schemes, which would keep Moore and Burnett on the field.
“We discussed having my hand down, discussed playing a little outside linebacker,” Mack told McDonald, of his discussions with Allen. “I’m ready, man. I’m ready to play football.”
It all points to a positive point for the Raiders: Oakland, which has been talent thin while going 4-12 the past two seasons, now has depth on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
That should allow Tarver to do what he does best: come up with new schemes to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and rotate players in to play to their strengths and keep his unit fresh. The past two seasons, the defense collapsed in the second half because of injuries, wear and tear and thin talent that eventually was exposed.
The Raiders have been a 4-3 defense, but now have the luxury of showing more 3-4 looks.
Allen has said Mack reminds him of Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who often rushes the passer from a defensive end position. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie believes Mack’s addition will make the whole defense better, and the linebacking corps will no doubt morph into a much stronger unit because of the increased competition for playing time.
McKenzie believes Mack can do almost anything.
“That guy has the size,” McKenzie told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com. “He has the length. He’s got speed. He’s a playmaker. We’ll find a way to put him on the field and get some production out of him.”