It’s been apparent for years that Reggie McKenzie doesn’t think it’s imperative to use high draft picks on middle linebacker prospects. He comes from the Ted Thompson school that says you can take an outside linebacker and move him inside, and those who would be candidates for such a move can usually be found in the lower rounds.
Jack Del Rio, a former NFL middle linebacker himself, either subscribed to this as well or simply went along with it, because despite a desperate need at middle linebacker every year, the Raiders never once made it a priority. Not in the draft and not in free agency.
With Jon Gruden’s new staff comes new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. He becomes the third straight former linebackers coach DC in Oakland. Neither of the previous two saw a middle linebacker selected higher than the fifth round. The closest was 4th round pick Miles Burris, who was an outside linebacker they moved inside for lack of other options. And that didn’t go well.
There was also this feeling that with so many former linebackers in house (McKenzie, Del Rio, Ken Norton Jr) that they felt they could uncover talented linebackers others could not.
From the way Guenther is talking, it looks like it will be more of the same from the Raiders linebacker draft philosophy.
“Before I became the coordinator in Cincinnati, I was a linebackers coach and I was always one to defer in the draft,” Guenther said Wednesday over conference call. “If we had a better corner or rusher to take one of those two before the linebacker. We made a living in Cincinnati of getting guys as free agents, guys who were maybe former safeties, small-school guys.”
To the Raiders’ credit, they did discover Nicholas Morrow out of Division III Greenville. And he’s been a revelation so far. Guenther has a similar history of uncovering late round and undrafted gems.
“I mean, I can go down the list,” Guenther continued. “We had Dan Skuta. I went to Grand Valley State to work him out. He was a nose guard at Grand Valley State and we made him a linebacker. He went on to play with the 49ers and the Jaguars. We had [Vincent] Vinny Rey, was a free agent from Duke that nobody wanted that played at a high level for us, still playing at a high level. We had Emmanuel Lamur who’s now with Minnesota that we took as a safety out of Kansas State. Having the background from s small school that I have, I really look at those levels.”
The last time the Bengals selected a middle linebacker in the first two rounds was 2009 when they drafted Rey Maualuga with the 38th overall pick in the second round out of USC. Even the Raiders have drafted a middle linebacker more recently, taking Rolando McClain at 8th overall out of Alabama in 2010. That was six head coaches ago in a different regime.
What all this says about the likelihood NaVorro Bowman will be brought back is uncertain. Guenther said he would like him back, and Bowman said he would like to return as well. That would finally secure the position for the first time in the Reggie McKenzie era.
Granted that mutual interest doesn’t mean that contract negotiations wouldn’t hit a snag or he wouldn’t be offered a far more lucrative deal elsewhere. We’ve certainly seen many previous middle linebacker acquisitions come and go in recent years after just one season or in this case a partial season.
The Raiders also still have Marquel Lee, who they selected in the 5th round last year and probably would still like to try and develop.
So, sorry Roquan Smith fans. It’s not looking too good for his chances of donning Silver & Black.