Editor’s note: Insider Scott Bair will analyze each position group leading up to Raiders training camp, which starts on July 29.
The Raiders addressed several positions of need this offseason in free agency and the draft, from cornerback to safety to the offensive and defensive line. The essentially left the interior linebackers alone.
That showed faith in their returners, including mainstay Malcolm Smith and 2015 fifth-round draft picks Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball. Smith should lead this small but vital group, charged with stopping plays at the second level while covering wide open spaces.
Smith is a lock at one spot, and Heeney is a frontrunner to start alongside him in a tough-to-classify Raiders defensive front that is listed like a 4-3 but often looks like a 3-4 or a 5-2. Ball missed the offseason program with injury, but has practiced in some capacity during pre-training camp workouts that started on Sunday.
Also of note, Bruce Irvin and Shilique Calhoun will play strongside linebacker, but will be applying pressure so often they’ll be considered an edge rushers in these position breakdowns and discussed in a different installment.
- Malcolm Smith
- Ben Heeney
- Neiron Ball
- John Lotuleilei
- Cory James
- Darren Bates
- Korey Toomer
- Kyrie Wilson
1. Is Ben Heeney ready for a major role?
Ben Heeney was the primary interior linebacker during the offseason program, when Neiron Ball and Malcolm Smith were sidelined with injury. Heeney had three starts and played significant snaps the last four games of 2015, faring well in that time. Heeney is an athletic cover man confident in his scheme knowledge, and will have a chance to earn a prominent role next to Smith. The Raiders have confidence in the Kansas alum, but a strong summer could cement that belief and give him significant responsibility.
2. How will Neiron Ball fare after being sidelined so long?
Neiron Ball is an athletic linebacker with a long injury history. He was held up in college for various ailments, and missed most of last season with a knee injury. He played well before bowing out in Week 5, though he was involved in just 63 total snaps, including 36 in a loss to Denver. It’s a small sample size he’d like to increase with a healthy stretch. He missed the offseason program with injury, but practiced in an unknown capacity in pre-camp workouts this week. It’s also uncertain how involved he’ll be to start camp, but his talent sparks curiosity about what he can do when healthy enough to develop.
3. Can Malcolm Smith continue his ironman ways?
Malcolm Smith played 1,162 defensive snaps last season, 99.2-percent of the Raiders’ defensive total. He recorded a heavy stat line as the only consistent presence at interior linebacker, with 122 tackles, four sacks, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2015. Smith will be a central figure in the team defense and will be an on-field leader and coordinator. The Raiders are thin at linebacker, and they need Smith to play another significant sum this season.