Editor's note: The above video is from Dec. 28, 2015.
Ben Heeney didn’t pay much attention to this year’s NFL Draft. The young linebacker knew his Raiders took Karl Joseph in the first round, but tuned out after that. He did check the overall haul, which addressed several positions of need.
There were no interior linebackers on the list. That action spoke loudly. The Raiders are comfortable with whom they have.
That means Malcolm Smith will lead the interior group, responsible for run defense and covering significant space. And Heeney is likely his running mate.
The second-year man from Kansas earned three starts and significant snaps at last season’s end, playing well enough for the Raiders to feel comfortable largely standing pat at his spot this offseason. That includes the NFL Draft.
“I saw that we got Karl on the first day, but I wasn’t stressing out over who they might pick,” Heeney told CSNCalifornia.com. “I’ve been focused on myself. I will say that it gives me confidence that they didn’t need to draft a guy high. Now the goal is to do what I do, make some plays and prove these guys right.”
Heeney has the opportunity to secure a top spot. He’s running the first unit during OTAs and, with Smith and Neiron Ball sidelined this spring with injury, sits in first chair.
There’s no contact at this stage; Heeney still has plenty to prove. That’s especially true from a position requiring scheme mastery and high football smarts.
“The mental side is a major focus right now,” Heeney said. “You’re doing everything you can physically, but you can’t hit. It’s important how to read an offense and how you get to where you need to be. It’s an important step as we head toward the season, and I’ll take every single practice rep I can get.”
Heeney was predictably down on the depth chart last season. He and Ball were drafted in the fifth round of last year’s draft, with Smith, Curtis Lofton, Sio Moore and Ray-Ray Armstrong expected to play a major role on Sundays. That didn’t happen, and three quarters of that group was jettisoned after disappointing play.
Ball suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 and remains out. Heeney was given an opportunity to learn on the job, an experience invaluable to his professional development.
“There are things to critique,” Heeney said. “You make some good plays, some bad plays and some bonehead mistakes you look back at on film and wonder why you’d do that. A big part of the development process is getting those things on film and learning from them. I feel like the improvement between my rookie year and this one is coming strong.
“Having game reps in the second half of the season helped me out a lot. It gave me a clearer picture of what I need to do to be a productive NFL player. Those reps were huge, and I think they inspired confidence from the coaches to give me a more opportunities to play in the future.”
Those game reps earned an opportunity to shine throughout the offseason and into training camp. Heeney finished with 38 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2015, including solid play in pass coverage.
“Ben’s been great,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said after the NFL draft. “We felt like he’s shown more than enough that he can play, at either spot, and even nickel situations. We like what Ben brings to the table.”
Heeney isn’t a hulk at 6-foot, 232 pounds, but has the speed and tenacity required to play a difficult position in the Raiders defense. That unit needs someone to play well with Smith, and Heeney’s getting first crack at that job. He isn’t, however, taking pole position for granted.
“The depth chart doesn’t mean much right now,” Heeney said. “We’re a long ways from Week 1, but I would say I’m blessed to be working with the first unit. I have to work that much harder to keep that spot. Hopefully I can earn a big role on this team, and help us win a bunch of games.”