As a former longtime NFL linebacker, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio knows a good linebacker when he sees one.
And so far, through training camp and the Raiders’ first exhibition game, Del Rio is excited by the play of Ben Heeney, a fifth-round draft pick out of Kansas. The 6-foot, 230-pounder is on the small side for an inside linebacker, but he’s playing so well he could earn snaps this season as the backup to Curtis Lofton, the veteran who’ll be the team’s starting middle linebacker.
Heeney has good speed, mobility and a nose for the football.
In a victory over the Rams Friday night, Heeney had a team-high eight tackles playing 32 snaps. He also had a sack and a quarterback hit.
“He’s very active,” said Del Rio. “That’s what we see in practice every day. He flies around. He’s very, very active. His speed showed up. That one time the quarterback tried to break contain and he ran him down for a sack. That’s just speed. That’s one of the reasons we have him here.”
Heeney says he’s not worried about his spot on the depth chart. He says he’s just “going to keep doing what I’m doing and try to improve every day.”
Added Heeney: “It was just cool to be able to step in there and make a little bit of an impact.”
At Kansas, where Heeney was first-team All-Big 12 in 2014, he led the Jayhawks in tackles for loss. The scouting report on Heeney by NFL.com before the draft called him a “grinder” who’s always looking for an advantage by studying tape.
“Has no interest in waiting for the play to come to him and looks to make things happen,” said the report. “Always around the ball.”
Even after his strong debut, Heeney told reporters he needs to perform better and hopes to improve over the next three preseason games, beginning with Saturday’s matchup against the Vikings.
“Just attack a little bit more,” he told the Raiders’ website. “There were a couple of plays I could have shot a gap and got a tackle for loss that I didn’t do, but I think for the most part I’m happy with my performance. I have a couple of things I need to clean up.”