It's been a while since the Raiders had a middle linebacker they could be proud of. Rolando McClain was supposed to revive the position which had been a liability for this team for more than a decade.
The Raiders think they have found their guy in Nick Roach.
"Nick's highly intelligent and he's athletic," said Dennis Allen. "He's done a nice job of kind of being the quarterback of our defense. He's kind of taken on that role and really has a passion about leading that team. With his athleticism he's not maybe your proto-typical Mike linebacker. He's got some things that he can do from a coverage standpoint that lends some flexibility to us."
Today in practice, he flashed that coverage ability. He was blanketing tight ends consistently and on one play was in Richard Gordon's hip pocket like a cornerback to knock down a Matt Flynn pass.
Coverage ability was one of Rolando McClain's many faults. But even moreso, it was his attitude and lack of leadership from the one position on the defense most responsible for taking on the leadership role that was the most damaging.
Allen won't talk about McClain or his effect on last year's team but when speaking of the difference between he and Roach in terms of leadership, Allen doesn't hold back on his enthusiasm.
"It's huge. Huge," said Allen of the leadership Roach brings. "I think, really within the whole team. We're looking to identify who are those leaders going to be on the whole team. Those are things that have got to come out of these OTAs, minicamp, when we get into training camp. Like I said last year, I think it was, the good football teams, the players take over. The locker room takes over. Nick's one of those guys we anticipate filling that role."
From the moment McClain set foot in the Raiders locker room, you could tell he lacked the leadership necessary for the middle linebacker position. The optimistic approach was that he would develop that leadership over time. He didn't. But if you ask Roach's teammates, he has no shortage of that intangible quality.
"Nick is a true Mike linebacker," said Andre Carter. "When I was in Washington we brought in London Fletcher, a similar situation. The Mike position is probably one of the key elements to having a good defense. He gets the communication to everyone, the defensive linemen, the cornerbacks, the safeties. If you don't have that you're not going to be successful."
Those are powerful words coming from a player like Carter who has been in the league as long as he has. It is a humbling experience for Roach but his attitude and presence speak volumes.
"Leadership positions are always hard," said Roach. "My approach so far has been to gain the respect of my teammates just through working, whether they seem me at practice or in the weight room. Kind of the humble approach to try to do things right and being able to admit, ‘I messed that up, I'm wrong, but I'll get it right next time.' Just that approach of being open and honest. To be honest most of these guys probably never heard of me before I got here so I'm not trying to be something I'm not and I think that helps guys warm up to you."
The qualities that Roach has brought to the table show why the team made him their biggest investment of the off-season. He received the longest (4 years) and highest paid ($3 million per season) contract of any of their free agent signings. On a team which was as cap strapped as the Raiders were, that says a great deal. If he continues to impress, he could be a cornerstone of this team at a position which has been a misstep of late.