Raider Nation has been critical of the Oakland Raiders’ choices at inside linebacker lately. Rolando McClain was a first-round pick in 2010 and Sio Moore was a third-rounder in 2013. But after they washed out, the Raiders started taking their ILBs late.
Head coach Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and general manager Reggie McKenzie were all linebackers in the NFL. So it’s easy to believe McKenzie when he says, “We know what a good linebacker is supposed to look like.”
But coming into this season, they seem not to have been able to find them. In 2015, they took Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball in the fifth round and Max Valles in the sixth. They took Corey James in the sixth round in 2016 and Marquel Lee in Round 5 this year.
A couple of weeks ago, in a story by Levi Damien, Norton was fired up about James and Lee. He sounded like he found his guys to solidify the Raiders’ ILB positions. But Raider Nation hears that a lot about players, only to be disappointed during the season.
Say what you will about Norton as a DC but he has a great early track record with LBs in the NFL. Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright turned out well for the Seattle Seahawks. And from what I saw of James and Lee in Arizona, the Raiders might be okay at ILB.
They stopped the inside run while the Arizona Cardinals did damage outside. Not having edge defenders Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin to set the edge hurt them there. James had seven and Lee had six tackles in one half in Arizona Saturday.
But James stood out more, showing he improved on his weaknesses from last year. He’s always had great speed, running a 4.5 40 at the combine. But he improved his pass coverage, instincts to find the ball and he sheds blocks much quicker.
And he showed he blitzes well inside, saving an easy touchdown with a quarterback hit. Lee also appears to have what it takes, especially against the run. He bumped his head a little in pass coverage but that was just his first NFL action.
If Lee can’t cover immediately, he’ll come off the field on passing downs. Meanwhile, James looks to have turned himself into a complete ILB over his one year in the NFL. It was a promising first outing for the pair leaving open the possibility that Norton’s faith in them could be justified.