Heeney's Growth Projects to Big Role for Raiders in 2016

Fifth-round draft pick moved into starting linebacker spot, supplanting veteran Lofton, and impressed teammates, coaches with speed and "nose for the football"

When the Raiders signed veteran middle linebacker Curtis Lofton last offseason, they thought they were investing in a player who would shore up the defense, provide leadership and be a terrific run stopper.

The former Saints and Falcons standout was a tackling machine in New Orleans and Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie expected the same in Oakland. McKenzie signed him to a three-year deal that paid Lofton a guaranteed $6.5 million for 2015. His salary for 2016 and 2017 would be $5.3 million and $5.8 million.

But as the Raiders head into the offseason, it’s doubtful Lofton will be in silver and black much longer.

Lofton wasn’t the player the Raiders hoped he would be. He was especially vulnerable in pass coverage, where opposing tight ends shredded the Raiders consistently in the first half of the season. As the season progressed, Lofton lost playing time to rookies Neiron Ball – who provided much better pass coverage until he was injured – and Ben Heeney.

Heeney, in fact, wound up thriving at middle linebacker and is the likely starter at the position in 2016 as the Raiders head into their offseason.

Lofton, on the other hand, was included in Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback’s feature late in the season listing the biggest free-agent flops of 2015.

Once inserted into the lineup, Heeney, a former standout at Kansas who is on the small size for an NFL linebacker (6 feet, 226 pounds) and was a fifth-round pick, impressed coaches with his energy, toughness and tackling ability.

Over the second half of the season, Heeney had two sacks and three games of seven or more tackles. He finished the season with one pass defensed, a forced fumble, 2½ sacks and was in on 33 tackles. Though he’s dwarfed by other linebackers in height and weight, Heeney has speed that others don’t have. At the NFL Combine, his 60-yard shuttle drill time was the fastest by a linebacker in a decade.

“Ben is full of energy,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters in December, when Heeney was playing a large role. “He really flies around, shows up around the ball a lot. He’s done well with the opportunity he’s had.”

Raiders linebacker-defensive end Khalil Mack believes Heeney is a big part of the team’s future.

“Ben is a hell of a player,” Mack told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Talk about a guy who has a nose for the football. He gets there and he makes an impact on the game. He is always around the ball.”

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