No positions was more unwisely neglected last offseason by the Raiders than middle linebacker. The lack of attention to such a key position bit the Raiders in the ass early and often.
Rolling with Ben Heeney and Cory James as the primary options fizzled out after week four. Heeney had lost his starting job after week two and James, while he showed some promise, wasn’t getting it done either, forcing the team to sign Perry Riley Jr off the street.
Riley was a major upgrade and a serious case of found money for this team, signing to a one year deal. Now the Raiders are back where they were last year at this time, with the hindsight to know they can’t ignore the position again.
The options on the market are rather slim. But the cupboard is certainly not bare.
Dont’a Hightower, 27
The middle linebacker prize of free agency this year. This 6-3, 265-pounder is an all-around game-changer. Outside of some injury issues over his career, there are little to no faults in his game. He can stop the run, drop into coverage, and rush the passer. Reggie McKenzie covets middle linebackers who are versatile like that. The ability go deep in a cover 2 or chase down running backs and tight ends from sideline to sideline while being the quarterback of the defense is tough to find.
I mentioned injuries as his primary concern. They are not a small concern. He has missed at least three games in each of the past three seasons – a total of 11 games. The Patriots may be balking at bringing him back for that reason. That and Hightower will be spendy. The Patriots tried to sign him to an extension prior to last season at $10 million per season and he turned it down. Rumor has it Hightower wants top LB money as the likes of Luke Kuechly and Jamie Collins received. That’s closer to $13 million. The Patriots are notoriously cocky tightwads. Hightower was a major factor in both of their last two Super Bowl wins. Now, since he’s not willing to take a lowball offer for the honor of being a Patriot, he can follow Collins and Chandler Jones out the door.
Zach Brown, 27
Last offseason, Brown signed with the Bills on a one-year deal without much fanfare. The former Titans 2nd round pick had a breakout season in Buffalo, starting every game, compiling 149 tackles (97 solo), 4.0 sacks, 4 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles and an interception.
That season didn’t come completely out of nowhere. His first two seasons in the league were good ones as well. He started 14 games as a rookie, putting up 92 tackles (68 solo), with 5.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defended, a forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 defensive touchdowns. Outside of the touchdowns, he had similar numbers his second season. Then he missed most of the 2014 season and fell off in his contract year of 2015. Suddenly he found himself in a position where taking a one-year ‘prove it’ deal was his best bet in order to earn a long term deal. He did that. If Hightower’s price war gets out of hand, Brown is a damn good second option.
Lawrence Timmons, 30
A seasoned veteran of 10 NFL seasons, Timmons has missed a grand total of 2 games in his career. He has also not missed a start in six years and has averaged 119 tackles per season the past 7 years.
The main issue with Timmons is he has a lot of mileage on his tires. He is about to turn 31 and he isn’t the player he once was. He peaked in 2014 when he put up 139 tackles (90 solo) and made the Pro Bowl. The interesting thing is, despite his supposed waning athleticism and coverage abilities, his numbers are still fairly good. He had 114 tackles last season (78 solo), 2 interceptions, and 5 passes defended.
Timmons also brings with him a veteran presence to the locker room, with 14 playoff game appearances and a Super Bowl ring. He would be a stopgap signing on one of those Reggie McKenzie special two-year deals with no dead money after year one.
Kevin Minter, 26
A slow start to his career saw him finally take over as the full time starter in his third season. A rough rookie season followed by a torn pectoral muscle in his second season kept him off the field, but he has started every game the past two seasons. He may not be a pure middle linebacker type, but as an inside linebacker, he can be effective. At 6-0, 245 pounds, he is an attacking, downhill backer. He doesn’t excel at any part of the game, but proved over the past couple seasons to be solid in most areas averaging 87.5 tackles. He is probably not the answer at middle linebacker, but could be a good young option with potential to be an upgrade addition.
Perry Riley Jr, 28
If the Raiders can’t find the answer at middle linebacker in free agency in one of the above players, they would be wise to bring back Riley on another one-year deal. He was a valuable addition after week four of the season and should no other team snatch him up early in free agency, having him back in the fold would provide the Raiders with insurance heading into the draft should they not find a middle linebacker they like early on.
Correction: I previously had Riley as being 31 for some reason. He’ll be 29 in May. Sorry ‘bout that, Perry.