Raiders Would Buck a Trend by Drafting ILB Early

The Raiders are, once again, searching for help at middle linebacker. That position's been a black hole, lacking stability or talent save a few brief periods.

Perry Riley anchored that spot well most of the 2016 season, and NaVorro Bowman did the same last year after the 49ers cut him. The Raiders want Bowman back, but the veteran didn't like contract offers and consequently remains a free agent.

The Raiders would still like him back, at the right price. That might not hold true after the draft, if they ignore tradition and select an inside linebacker early.

Reggie McKenzie hasn't taken one above the fourth round since becoming Raiders general manager in 2012. The Bengals never took one high when Paul Guenther was Cincinnati defensive coordinator.

First-round premiums generally fall to other positions. This year might be an exception.

The Raiders are in desperate need of linebacker help -- Tahir Whitehead's the only established starter, and is expected to play the weak side – and there are two elite prospects worthy of a top 10 pick.

The Raiders have 2017 fifth-rounder Marquel Lee and sub-package coverage linebacker Nicholas Morrow in the mix right now. It could be time to alter strategy and select a three-down linebacker who can anchor the middle of Guenther's defense.

The Raiders should have options at No. 10 overall, if they trade down in the first round and again at No. 41. If they take a linebacker early, Bowman likely won't come back. If linebacker remains a need as rounds go by, it might be time to get Bowman signed or stick with a Lee and Morrow platoon.

Here's a look at their prospects in this year's draft.

Roquan Smith, Georgia
-- The former Bulldog's a true sideline-to-sideline playmaker, a picture of the modern-day NFL linebacker. He's only 6 feet, 236 pounds, but packs a punch while playing smart, aggressive football. He has great speed and pursuit, and is a smart on-field leader of a defense. Smith's a plug-and-play prospect at this point, seemingly ideal for what the Raiders need at inside linebacker. It's possible, however, Smith doesn't make it to No. 10 overall. He could be gone before the Raiders pick, which might constitute a bummer for Silver and Black.
Projected round (per 1

Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
-- Edmunds has prototypical linebacker size (6-5, 253) and can play all three spots. He could function as a pass-rusher in certain alignments, with the speed and smarts to cover well in space. Analysts say Edmunds has All-Pro potential, but a lower floor than Smith. The former Hokie has some development work to do, expected considering the kid's only 19 years old. He, like Smith, may be gone before the Raiders pick. If he's there and some other top talents are gone, Edmunds could well end up a Raider.
Projected round (per 1

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
-- The former Bronco is another inside linebacker with the speed and sure tackling to play from sideline to sideline, with huge range against the run and in coverage. He was a team captain at Boise State and committed to his craft. He is capable of making an early impact the Raiders need at the position. Vander Esch, however, might only be available as a trade-down candidate. The same goes for Alabama's Rashaan Evans, another inside linebacker (with versatility to play anywhere) set to go late in the first-round.
Projected round (per 1

Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
-- Leonard is considered one of this draft's best coverage linebackers, with a chance to be a quality NFL starter inside. He's 6-2, 234, a bit smaller than ideal for a 4-3 middle linebacker, but he processes information quickly and has great closing speed as a tackler and in coverage. He needs to increase play strength, but could be an asset on a team needing agility inside.
Projected rounds (per 2-3

Malik Jefferson, Texas
-- Jefferson was a top high-school recruit who plays significant time during his Texas career. He has tremendous athleticism and coverage ability on the inside, though analysts believe he might be a 4-3 WILL linebacker. That would move Whitehead to the middle, a spot he's capable of playing. He might need to be taught more about mental aspects of the game, and doing so would unlock great physical ability. He may go higher than his projected rounds suggest.
Projected rounds (per 3-4

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