Before Sunday, Raiders rookie linebacker Ben Heeney hadn’t made much of an impact.
The former Kansas Jayhawk, taken in the fifth round this spring, mostly had played special teams and had recorded just one tackle in eight previous games.
But in Sunday’s 18-13 loss to the Detroit Lions, Heeney was thrown into the defensive mix, playing a large role as a linebacker with pass-coverage responsibilities on throwing downs. It was a similar role to that played by fellow rookie linebacker Neiron Ball earlier this season. Ball, currently sidelined by injury, provided solid coverage on opposing tight ends and he figures to regain that role when he’s again healthy.
But against the Lions, Heeney showed that he has potential to play well in the NFL and could be in the team’s long-term mix on defense for head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
Heeney played a career-high 38 snaps – 53 percent of all defensive plays – and was in on seven tackles plus had a sack.
Judging by Del Rio’s evaluation to reporters Monday, Raiders fans could see more of Heeney this Sunday when the 4-6 Raiders travel to Tennessee to play the 2-8 Titans (10 a.m. kickoff).
“He plays hard. He makes a lot of tackles,” Del Rio said. “He’s a productive guy. A cople times where he overran the ball, over pursued the ball and allowed some cutbacks, it was effort-filled performance. That’s what we know about Ben. He’s going to fly around. He’s going to be on plays.
“He made a heck of a move to get that sack. For his first extended action, I thought he did pretty well.”
Heeney’s performance is just one more indication that Reggie McKenzie’s draft class of 2015 could be providing benefits for years to come.
No. 1 pick, receiver Amari Cooper, already is a star. No. 2 choice Mario Edwards Jr. is starting at defensive end. Third pick, tight end Clive Walford, is playing a bigger role almost every game. Heeney and Ball have shown quickness and coverage skills as linebackers. Offensive lineman Jon Feliciano, cornerback Dexter McDonald, defensive end Max Valles and return specialist Andre DeBose are on the roster, practice squad or injured reserve and may contribute down the line.
Heeney, a middle linebacker at Kansas who led the Big 12 in tackles as a senior, said earlier this season that he knows he can contribute and play at this level, but knows he has to keep working and learn from his mistakes.
Said Heeney: “I just have to be the type of player that I know I am.”