Editor's note: Here is the fourth installment of a five-part series on the organization’s top offseason priorities.
Linebacker was a position of perceived strength heading into last season, a belief that quickly proved false.
Sio Moore fell out of favor with head coach Jack Del Rio and was traded. Ray-Ray Armstrong didn’t work out and was eventually cut. Curtis Lofton went from three-down linebacker to role player posthaste.
Malcolm Smith was the only player to pan out. He proved a vital cog in the Raiders defense, recording 122 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in a whopping 1,162 defensive snaps.
Smith couldn’t do it all, and never found a reliable partner or platoon during the 2015 season. The Raiders tried everything, including fifth-round rookies Neiron Ball and Ben Heeney on passing downs. Ball got hurt shortly after playing time increased and never recovered. Heeney showed progress throughout the year, but development is required to secure a prominent role.
That should lead the Raiders to upgrade that spot. Head coach Jack Del Rio and coordinator Ken Norton Jr. require fast, physical interior linebackers adept at run defense and coverage, and they need more of both in the second level.
That upgrade could happen at No. 14 overall, where some intriguing linebackers could be available.
Mock drafts have the Raiders taking Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland as linebackers in the first round.
There are intriguing free-agent options to anchor the linebacker corps and pair with Smith as a three-down player or as a platoon player. Denver’s Danny Trevathan ranks chief among them, with excellent run defense and tackling efficiency. He’s also just 25 years old, and could be a long-term solution for the right (probably expensive) price.
The Broncos have several key defenders to sign – Von Miller and Malik Jackson chief among them -- and Trevathan could slip through the cracks.
Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson is 33 and could be a less permanent solution. He’s another player on a team with several of their free agents to sign.
Even with young players in development, the Raiders could use top-end talent on the inside. It’s a position where a significant upgrade could bolster the entire defense.