The need the Raiders have at the linebacker position begins and ends in the middle. Nick Roach appears to be done in Oakland with a concussion he received last preseason which is still showing symptoms and Miles Burris was the worst middle linebacker in the NFL last season.
To each side, the Raiders have two of their best young players in Khalil Mack and Sio Moore. So, finding a starting middle linebacker is of utmost importance. It was voted the third most desperate need position by the fans and I fully agree.
Here are those middle linebackers on the market who stand to receive the most interest from the Raiders:
He has to be the top option on the free agent market at middle linebacker. He has been one of the better middle linebackers in the NFL the past four seasons in New England and Buffalo. His strong suit is defending the run, but he can rush the passer with some proficiency as well. The one area he struggles with some is coverage.
Anything lost in coverage is made up for as a run stopper. And that is what you want the most from your middle linebacker. He's got to pick the right hole and plug it and have the ability to shed blocks along the way. That's where Spikes excels as evidenced by his 44 run stops last season which, according to Pro Football Focus, was the second most among inside linebackers. He also had just two missed tackles.
Here is what Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings had to say about Spikes:
A two-down run linebacker, and one of the best in the business in that role. If you can keep him off the field on passing downs, that'd be best, because he's not a fluid athlete and can be a major liability in a pass defense. The Bills are changing schemes and have three linebackers ahead of him in utility, so again, I think it's more likely than not that he walks.
The Raiders have a new staff in place this season. Their new defensive coordinator is Ken Norton Jr, who spent the past 5 seasons as the linebackers coach for the Seattle Seahawks. His job before that? Linebackers coach at USC from 2004-09. His starting middle linebacker for four of those years? Rey Maualuga.
Unders Norton Jr at USC, Maualuga won the Chuck Bednarik Award given to the nation's top linebacker. He was also a unanimous first team All-American. You think he would like to be reunited with his former linebackers coach? You think Norton Jr would like to have his standout middle linebacker on his team? I'd bet dollars to donuts they would both like that reunion to occur.
Here is what Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle had to say about Maualuga:
From the moment the star linebacker was drafted out of USC in 2009, Maualuga was viewed as the future in the middle of the Bengals' defense. He spent his first two seasons at outside backer, where he was very productive while playing alongside Dhani Jones in the middle.
Once Jones was let go, Maualuga became the man in the middle, but for the most part, he's shown mixed results that were more often of the negative variety.
From 2011-13, Maualuga ranked among Pro Football Focus' worst middle linebackers, and any fan who just watched him play could tell he wasn't suited for the role in which Cincinnati had placed him.
Despite his struggle, the Bengals brought him back on a two-year deal in 2013, and after another poor season in '13, Maualuga had a decent year in 2014, finishing with a -0.1 grade from PFF, ranking him 27th out of 60 middle backers who played in at least 25% of their teams' snaps.
While Norton Jr would probably be all about getting his former middle linebacker back, Jack Del Rio could overrule him in that category to get his former middle linebacker from Denver to join the Raiders.
The former third round pick in the 2011 draft, didn't start a single game his first couple seasons with the Broncos. In his third season, he appeared in all 16 games and started four games at strong side linebacker in place of the injured Von Miller.
He played well enough that when Wesley Woodyard left to sign with the Titans, Irving was named the starting middle linebacker last season. He was looking like an upgrade over Woodyard last season until it was cut short due to injury either games into the season. That isn't to say he is injury prone or anything; he had appeared in all but two games in his first three seasons.
Irving does his best work stopping the run which would be a breath of fresh air for the Raiders after dealing with the run stopping deficiencies of Nick Roach and Miles Burris the past couple seasons.
This would be the ‘we missed out on all our top choices so sign the good veteran to a short term deal and look to find a long term answer in the draft' signing. The veteran middle linebacker is as durable as they come, having not missed a single start for the Jets in the past six seasons.
At 31 years of age he is looking for what could be his last NFL contract. He would likely receive something like a 2-3 year contract much like those given to several veteran free agents last offseason. Just as before, the purpose being to have someone in place to allow them to draft the eventual replacement either this year or next. And his veteran presence would be quite valuable.