The Raiders added talent to several position groups in last week’s NFL Draft.
They needed an immediate impact safety. Hello, Karl Joseph. They needed a rotational pass rusher. Enter Shilique Calhoun. They needed a complimentary running back, someone adept receiving out of the backfield. DeAndre Washington, enter stage left.
There were a few fields left untended, interior linebacker chief among them. That says something about the Raiders confidence in those already on the roster.
Malcolm Smith seems set for another season anchored in the interior. Last year, he played nearly every snap.
Ben Heeney joined him as a three-down option late in the year, after several failed veteran experiments. The Raiders liked the fifth-round pick’s returns as an energetic player able to cover in great space while playing tough against the run.
“Ben’s great. We felt like he’s shown more than enough that he can play, at either spot, and even nickel situations,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. ”We like what Ben brings to the table.”
The Raiders have another young option in Neiron Ball, another 2015 fifth-round pick who has ability on the interior. Ball missed the last 11 games with a knee injury, though McKenzie expects a return this offseason.
“He’s doing everything, he’s good,” McKenzie said. “We expect him to be ready to roll.”
Ball got a crack at the interior before Heeney, and both players showed promise as rookies. Their development will be key to the Raiders defense, especially with Smith entering a contract year.
Ball has been getting healthy, and Heeney has worked to add some bulk while keeping the speed and tenacity that is his trademark.
Sixth-round rookie Cory James could add depth there, but McKenzie says he’ll “make his money” as a special teamer.
Despite leaving the position alone in impact rounds, the Raiders feel confident in the talent they have to man to key spots.
“We’ve got some guys that we can interchange,” McKenzie said. “It depends who steps up at weakside if they want to move Malcolm. Heeney can really do both. We’ve got some guys that are versatile, so we’ll just play that by ear.
"The key is just putting the best two inside linebackers out there. Which combination works best, that’s who the coaches will go with, but they’ll work through that.”