Editor’s note: The Raiders have roughly $74 million in cap space heading into the start of unrestricted free agency. Scott Bair takes a look at how they could fill several areas of need. The first installment examines inside linebackers.
Malcolm Smith played 1,162 defensive snaps last season, far smaller sums with the interior linebacker alongside him. Ray-Ray Armstrong, Curtis Lofton, Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball took their turn helping out, without anyone taking hold of the position against the run or pass.
The Raiders would like to add an interior linebacker to man the middle and, while there are plenty of options in the NFL draft, some veterans would provide improved production and consistency. Let’s take a look at who’s here, and who could be added to the mix over the next few weeks.
Malcolm Smith: 6 feet, 225 pounds, five accrued seasons, USC
Stats: 122 tackles, six passes defensed four sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception
Curtis Lofton 6 feet, 245 pounds, eight accrued seasons, Oklahoma
Stats:64 tackles, 1 sack
Ben Heeney: 6 feet, 230 pounds, one accrued season, Kansas
Stats:38 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, one pass defensed
Neiron Ball: 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, one accrued season, Florida
Stats:Nine tackles, one sack
Thoughts: Smith is a serviceable starter who might be better served on the weak side. Heeney and Ball flashed potential, but the group needs a serious talent infusion. The Raiders can’t cross fingers and hope the young players evolve into a three-down linebacker who can anchor a stout defense.
BIG TICKET ITEMS
Danny Trevathan (Broncos): 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, four accrued seasons, Kentucky
Stats: 109 tackles, two interceptions (one touchdown), six passes defensed
Good fit? Trevathan is the type of player who rarely reaches free agency at this stage of his career, but Denver has higher priorities (Von Miller, Brock Osweiller) to lock down before next week. They will let him test the open market, and Oakland seems like a perfect landing spot. Trevathan worked with Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio when he was Broncos defensive coordinator, and could anchor the interior defense and give an instant upgrade. Trevathan won’t come cheap, but this might be the right time to invest in a young player on the rise.
Derrick Johnson (Chiefs): 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, 11 accrued seasons, Texas
Stats:116 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, eight passes defensed
Good fit? Johnson has been the Raiders’ sworn enemy after 12 years in Kansas City, and moving within the division would seem strange. Bringing him in would provide instant leadership on a team needing some. It would also provide instant production from this all-around player who rarely misses time. Johnson is not a long-term solution at 33 years old, but he could bridge the gap to see if Heeney and/or Ball develop into productive starters.
Jerrell Freeman (Colts): 6 feet, 240 pounds, four accrued seasons, Mary Hardham
Stats:112 tackles, three sacks, one interception (one touchdown), two passes defensed.
Good fit? Freeman is an excellent coverage linebacker, exactly what the Raiders need on the interior. Last season was his best, suggesting this is a player on the rise. He could platoon on passing downs at minimum, or take an active three-down role the Raiders could covet in the middle.
Other options: Mark Barron (Rams), Zach Brown (Titans), Craig Robertson (Browns)
Overall thoughts: The Raiders obviously need help on the interior, but should go big or go young in an attempt to fix this problem spot. Trevathan seems like an ideal addition, even if it’s expensive. They want to avoid another Lofton situation, where a perceived three-down veteran is signed and then falls out of the rotation. Freeman could provide security there if Trevathan heads elsewhere. The Raiders should either aim high, or look to fill this spot with an early draft pick.