Linebacker Perry Riley Jr. didn’t figure into the Raiders’ plans for 2016. He wasn’t on the team’s opening-game roster, and was, in fact, out of a job after six seasons in Washington, most of them as a starter.
But once the Raiders brought Riley aboard as a free agent in October to help solve some problems, he was a pleasant surprise. He wound up starting 11 games in the middle of the defense and was a difference-maker. He was in on 48 tackles and forced two fumbles in taking over for injured Ben Heeney.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was immediately impressed by Riley.
“Just his work ethic, his passion for the game, his hunger for knowledge in coming here,” Norton told reporters. “You can tell that his years of experience have really helped him with the ability to come out here and play right away. You can tell he’s paying attention. … He’s a true veteran.”
In his first game, a victory over the Chargers, the former LSU standout had seven tackles and helped solidify the run defense. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin called Riley “a tough, hard-nosed competitive guy who makes plays.”
Now Riley is one of several Raiders eligible to be an unrestricted free agent, and general manager Reggie McKenzie will have to decide if it’s worth it to keep Riley with a new deal, or to go another direction for linebacker help, either through the draft or free agency.
As Sayre Bedinger of FanSided recently noted, Riley was a key part of a defense that improved over the second half of the regular season. He ranks as the highest-graded of the Raiders potential free agents, according to the analytic website Pro Football Focus, over the likes of running back Latavius Murray, defensive tackle Stacy McGee, linebacker Malcolm Smith, offensive tackle Menelik Watson and safety Nate Allen.
Wrote Bedinger: “With the linebacker position an area of need for Oakland, (the Raiders) may look to re-sign Riley for another year or two while grooming a young player to eventually take over the role full time.”
Riley is 28, so he should have several solid years ahead if the Raiders choose to keep him.