NAPA – Marquel Lee spent his first professional training camp working with the first unit. The Raiders didn't have many options at middle linebacker, so they rolled with the fifth-round pick from Wake Forest.
The Raiders haven't had much luck with middle linebackers starting with Rolando McClain, with veteran signings Nick Roach and Curtis Lofton and draft picks Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball failing to stabilize an important position.
Perry Riley Jr. helped out during the 2016 season, but he didn't return and hasn't played NFL football since that year.
The Raiders were hoping Lee would fit right in as a primary starter, but he wasn't quite ready for so much responsibility. The team went out and signed NaVorro Bowman after six weeks, and he held the position strong during his time in silver and black.
Lee might not have been ready then. Raiders coaches believe he's ready now.
He's been the first-team middle linebacker in the base defense despite the team signing Derrick Johnson in the offseason.
"I think he's more and more of a complete linebacker," head coach Jon Gruden said. "He's getting more comfortable in pass coverage. I think he's a presence in the middle of our defense right now. It's something that is not going unnoticed with his teammates and coaches."
Johnson's working in sub packages, but the Raiders believe there's potential as a three-down linebacker.
"That's the goal. It takes a lot of work," Gruden said. "He's still a young linebacker. He's learning a new defense. He's earning more and more looks."
Lee had a strong preseason game against the Lions and a productive training camp in general. He's taken first-team reps and run with them. Lee's far more comfortable in his role this year over last, taking confidence into every practice session.
"I'm playing faster," Lee said. "I'm seeing things faster and diagnosing things and playing with more instinct. I'm more comfortable in the defense. I know where I need to be, which allows me to fit the run well and just make plays."
The Raiders wanted Lee a bit heavier heading into training camp. He's up approximately five pounds after offseason work, but has found ways to stay quick with the extra mass.
"They wanted me to be heavier, so I had to learn how to play at that size," Lee said. "I'm around 240 now, and playing fast at that weight, taking on blocks at that weight is key. I feel really functional at this weight."
Johnson seemed set to be a three-down linebacker after signing here, but there was no guarantee the 35-year old could play as fast as he has. Lee often pairs with Tahir Whitehead, an established NFL starter who signed a three-year deal with the Silver and Black.
He has enjoyed partnering with Lee, and could do so in future seasons if Lee continues to develop.
"He's asking all the right questions, really diving into the film," Whitehead said. "I think he's going to take a huge step this year. He's smart, athletic and phsycial. I feel really good about him and our young guys."