A major development this training camp for the Raiders is the situation at middle linebacker. Last season ended with Malcolm Smith playing the MIKE linebacker spot, but that starting role now goes to last year's fifth round pick, Ben Heeney.
Meanwhile, Smith is moving back to his role as an outside linebacker, playing inside linebacker alongside Heeney in 3-4 sets. To make that move the team needed a player to back up Heeney in the middle. They have found that player in rookie sixth round pick, Cory James.
Immediately after he was drafted, James said the Raiders seemed to want him as an outside linebacker. That made sense considering he spent most of his three seasons at Colorado State playing on the outside, along with some stints at defensive end. But he soon found out the Raiders had other plans.
"The plan from the get go was for me to play in the middle," said James. "I started off at WILL and then moved to the middle in OTA's and have been playing there ever since."
Over four college seasons, James played every linebacker spot, moving to middle linebacker for the first part of his senior season. Just that handful of games at the position had NFL teams seeing him as a middle linebacker.
"That was the first time I'd ever played MIKE," said James. "It came as a big change for me, but I got used to it."
It was the Raiders who pulled the trigger in the sixth round, with eyes on him as an instant special teams contributor and developmental defensive prospect.
He has shown improvement throughout camp as he says he has learned something new every day, both as a guy who's new to the position and a new to the pros. His efforts paid off last week with a big interception on a Matt McGloin intermediate pass over the middle intended for Gabe Holmes. Ben Heeney spoke glowingly of James following that practice.
"We drafted Cory James in the sixth round and he's a great player," said Heeney. "He's been making a lot of plays, he had an interception out there today, so Cory's a young kid that's definitely going to have a big role wherever it is; defense, special teams."
James has noticed that having played so many different positions in college has helped him as a middle linebacker. It has also helped him with his special teams duties.
At 6-1, 229 pounds, he and Heeney are of similar stature. Neither is the big ‘thumper' type of middle linebacker, but that's not what the Raiders want. They want smart players in that position who are also athletic enough to chase down a running back outside and drop into coverage on a tight end.
Heeney is looking like a steal as a fifth round pick. The Raiders are hoping they were able to do it again with their latest linebacker draft pick.