Of all the positions of need this off-season, linebacker appeared to be the weakest position amongst free agents. While the Raiders did sign Bruce Irvin, it appears his role won't involve filling the gap at middle linebacker the Raiders have had for the past few years.
Last offseason, Oakland tried to solve this problem by signing Curtis Lofton — an experiment that turned out to be a disaster, as he was benched (although not quickly enough) and replaced by a combination of Ben Heeney and Malcolm Smith. Now, when it comes to the draft, I suppose your take on whether Alabama's Reggie Ragland or Ohio State's Darron Lee are a good fit in Oakland comes down to how well you think those two fared last season.
Ragland is a true middle linebacker, graded by Todd McShay as far-and-above the best inside linebacker in the class, even though he ranks as his 19th best player overall. Lee, on the other hand, has a smaller build and is believed to be a better fit as an outside linebacker depending on the scheme. According to McShay, Lee is the No. 9 prospect in the draft.
So, what do our writers think?
If there's one missing piece on the Oakland defense, it's linebacker. While Heeney and Smith played admirably last season, you're not going to construct a dominant defense with those two as your primary pieces. I think Heeney is a long-term fit as a backup/special teamer, and I think Smith needs to return to his most comfortable position as an outside linebacker.
Other options on the roster include Neiron Ball, who played well in limited action as a rookie, and Bruce Irvin, who appears to be more of a pass-rusher than anything else.
For me, this all means Oakland must draft a middle linebacker at some point in the draft — and if they're going to do it in the first, then Ragland has to be the guy. (Although Jaylen Smith intrigues me in the second or third round).
Almost everywhere you look, Ragland is described as "old-school" or "throw-back" as a middle linebacker — something I'm sure Reggie McKenzie and Jack Del Rio love about him. Thanks in part to that style, Ragland was SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season and was named a unanimous All-American — only the third Alabama player to do so. For me, Ragland is a perfect fit of skill and need in Oakland, and even if it means reaching a few spots. I think he's worth the pick.
Darron Lee, on the other hand, is more complicated for the simple reason that I just don't see where he fits. If Lee is taken, Oakland has to decide what to do with Malcolm Smith, Neiron Ball and Bruce Irvin. Surely he would be an upgrade over that group of players as a pure outside linebacker, but I think in this spot, Oakland has the luxury of taking an equally good player at a position of more need.
I know, I know, best player available — but at some point you need to draft guys who are going to see the field and improve the roster as a whole, even if that means moving down your board one or two spots to fill a gaping hole.
Verdict: Ragland - PICK; Lee - PASS
Ragland is a thumper that would have excelled 15 years ago, but in today's league linebackers need to be able to cover ground and move laterally quickly. While he has a knack for finding the ball, Ragland struggles in both areas.
Lee, on the other hand, has excellent quickness and moves well in space, but he is projected as an outside linebacker which is arguably the Raiders strongest position. Lee is also undersized and was charged with 21 missed and five broken tackles over the last two seasons. Neither player merits the 14th overall selection in my opinion, and the Raiders will be able to find better value elsewhere.
Verdict: Ragland: PASS, Lee: PASS
Anyone who has watched college football in the last decade knows that Alabama perennially has one of the best — if not the best — overall defense. A huge part of Alabama's success comes from their regular recruitment of stud linebackers such as Courtney Upshaw, Demeco Ryans, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley. Reggie Ragland is the next player in that line.
Ragland is known as a tackling machine and a run-stuffer and has been a 3-4 inside backer. The Alabama defensive line has usually enabled him to act unblocked, but he can get off blocks when he needs to. He isn't fast and he has trouble with angles and man coverage, but is good in zone. He plays physical football with fire and intensity.
Ragland's relative lack of speed is why I don't feel he is a pick at 14, but should Oakland trade into the 20s I feel he is an option there. The Raiders took Ben Heeney last season and I think Ragland is a far, far better version of Heeney.
Darron Lee took over the Ohio State weakside linebacker position from Steelers first round pick Ryan Shazier, but it's Lee who is the better prospect. Lee has ridiculous speed and atheticism and is a ballhawk with good cover skills. Where he lacks is in the strength department. Lee stands 6'1" and 232 pounds, but he doesn't play like a man of that stature. His tackles get broken easier than most and he has a tendency to make shoestring tackles rather than attack and wrap up.
Lee is a big boom or bust guy in my eyes and I think he needs a scheme fit rather than being able to adapt to any team. He's a pure edge rusher to me, and while he's very good at that I don't see the Raiders needing one in the first round.
If you combined Reggie Ragland and Darron Lee you'd get Luke Keuchly, but of the two I prefer Ragland for the Raiders. Even so, pass on both of them.
Verdict: Ragland: PASS; Lee: PASS
Marcus Allen Krause
My initial thought on Reggie Ragland is that I wanted nothing to do with another Alabama linebacker after the nasty taste leftover from Ronaldo McClain. Then I realized the two have nothing to do with each other and you can't write someone off as guilty by association like that. After all, that mentality would have had the Raiders skipping Derek Carr because his brother David got eaten alive in Houston.
After delving deeper I realized that I really like a lot of things that Reggie Ragland has to offer, specifically his excellent form tackling where he always seems to hit players in the chest. He needs to improve his angles and coverage, but his old school mentality would fit right in with the Raiders current defense. It depends on who else is available but if McKenzie decided on Ragland I would be ok with the pick.
Darron Lee on the hand I just can't really get excited about. He has better speed than Ragland and plays with great energy but he comes off as too reckless to me. He is superbly confident and could bring an attitude to the Raiders but he is a little small for linebacker and Oakland isn't in need of another outside pass rusher. With that in mind I'd have to pass on him in the 1st for the Raiders.
Verdict: Ragland: PICK, Lee: PASS
If there was anything we found out last season it's that a heavy footed middle linebacker falls behind on the Raiders defense. Curtis Lofton was not a fit for this multiple scheme defense for that reason and neither is Ragland. Also consider the tenets Reggie McKenzie's mentor Ted Thompson goes by. And that's not placing a high value on middle/inside linebackers. Some people read that and they think it means they don't feel like they need one. That's not what that means. What it means is they feel like they can take an outside linebacker (like Malcolm Smith) and make him an inside linebacker. Ragland is a fringe first round pick for any team which makes his selection at 14 ahead of other higher rated players a reach.
Lee is an incredible athlete and very talented linebacker. But what does he add to the Raiders defense that would make his selection a worthwhile addition? Outside linebacker is one of the Raiders' strongest positions. With Khalil Mack in place, the addition of Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith to return in November, and Malcolm Smith able to play inside and out, they look stout at outside linebacker. Lee is best suited on the weakside in a 4-3 and excels in coverage. Those are qualities Neiron Ball showed last season before being lost to injury.
Verdict: Ragland: PASS, Lee: PASS