When the Raiders open training camp next week, the linebacking competition will be one of the most interesting to watch.
The linebacking corps was a weakness in 2017 and a question mark going into 2018. Recently, when Bleacher Report published a story targeting the major weakness on every NFL roster, it addressed the uncertainty by selecting its front seven, which includes the linebackers. Can Derrick Johnson still play well at age 35? Will veteran addition Tahir Whitehead be a good fit? Can somebody step forward from a group that includes Emmanuel Lamur, Nicholas Morrow, James Cowser, Shilique Calhoun, Marquel Lee and Azeem Victor?
And, will Oakland regret not re-signing veteran NaVorro Bowman, who played very well for the Raiders last season after being signed following his release by the 49ers, yet wasn’t pursued this offseason. Bowman, who filled the need at middle linebacker and as a leader in 2017, was replaced by Johnson.
It was a curious move, in that Bowman was younger and more effective than Johnson last season. In fact, Bowman was graded as the No. 2 best-performing Raider of 2017 by the analytic website Pro Football Focus, behind Khalil Mack.
Recently, too, some analysts believe Johnson may not be able to be an every-down player at middle linebacker, much less an impact player as Bowman was.
John Middlekauff, who covers the Raiders for The Athletic, says there is some doubt if Johnson will even make the 53-man opening-game roster.
“I’m not even sure (head coach Jon) Gruden knows,” Middlekauff wrote, in reference to who will play middle linebacker in 2018. “In a perfect world for Gruden, Derrick Johnson would prove he’s the guy in camp. But I’m not sure he can run anymore. And in a league that spreads you out more than ever, you must cover ground to play in the middle. I think there is a better chance that Johnson gets cut at the end of camp than ends up the starter.”
If that’s the case, then the Raiders’ linebacking outlook looks even murkier.