Save in-season respites from NaVorro Bowman and Perry Riley Jr., the Raiders have long lacked stability at middle linebacker. Call it the curse of Rolando McClain if you will, but the Silver and Black haven't been able to draft, develop or sign someone capable to taking the defensive reigns and holding them throughout the year.
New head coach Jon Gruden believes Derrick Johnson will buck the trend. The 35-year old signed with the Silver and Black after 13 years in Kansas City looking to extend an illustrious career.
Johnson has the football smarts to excel and maybe make up for some lost athleticism. He can certainly lead the defense and make others around him better.
Can he perform consistently well against the run and pass at his age? That's this position group's biggest question. What's next if he doesn't show well this preseason? Second-year pros Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow could platoon in the middle, or the Raiders could look outside the roster (again) for help in the middle.
Johnson had a solid offseason program – the man can command a defense -- and coaches believe he can still perform well. He'll have Tahir Whitehead off one flank and likely Emmanuel Lamur off the other, with young kids pushing for a role on defense.
Derrick Johnson, Tahir Whitehead, Emmanuel Lamur, Nicholas Morrow, Marquel Lee, Azeem Victor, Jason Cabinda, Kyle Wilber, James Cowser
Best Of The Bunch: Whitehead
Johnson has an excellent resume featuring Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams. At this stage, however, he's on the back end of his career. Whitehead is in his prime.
The former Detroit Lion is a quality tackler and run defender, though his coverage has been uneven. The offseason program showed his the vocal leader of this position group, someone willing to teach young players lower on the depth chart.
The Raiders need him to be an effective three-down linebacker, a steadying presence in the defense's second level.
Top Camp Battle: Lamur vs. Morrow
The Raiders have veterans penciled into each starting linebacker spot. That includes Lamur, who was lining up on the strong side during the offseason program.
Morrow was last year's most impactful rookie despite coming from a Division III school, proving esepecially adept in pass coverage. He's a smidge undersized but was a relatively strong tackler, and learned a bunch playing under Bowman last year.
Whitehead's flexible enough to play any linebacker spot, and if Morrow's one of the best three, the Raiders can find a way to make it work.
Lamur has played for Guenther before and is comfortable in the system. He wants to return to a starting role, and will push to maximize his playing time.
Don't take this as saying Lee might not make the 53-man roster. He will. The Wake Forest alum is a solid tackler with ideal size as a 4-3 linebacker. Coaches like him. He is, however, behind Derrick Johnson on the depth chart. In a perfect Raiders world, Johnson plays every snap as defensive field general.
If Johnson shows his age, Lee must be ready to step in and produce on rushing downs especially. Development and consistency will be key here, and could help make an impact this year or the next.
This linebacker corps will look completely different, but that might not be a bad thing. Upgrades were required here after Bowman couldn't agree on terms of a new deal. New personnel will determine this unit's status as defensive strength or weakness. Look for Morrow to make an impact in some way. Keep an eye on Cabinda and Victor as the preseason rolls along.