Quarterback Aidan O’Connell wasn’t the only Las Vegas Raiders rookie who shined during the team’s preseason-opening 34-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday. Linebacker Amari Burney also helped solidify himself as someone to watch.
The sixth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft is almost an afterthought, despite being part of a Raiders linebacker group that isn’t the paragon of quality talent. In fact, that position was considered one of need as Las Vegas navigated through the offseason. Yet Burney was the lone draft capital spent at the linebacker spot while Robert Spillane was signed from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But in the Raiders’ victory, Burney made a case to not only make the 53-man roster, but a potential contributor on defense too showing off much-needed speed and versatility.
The 6-foot-2, 229-pound University of Florida product racked up four total tackles (three solo) to along with one sack, one tackle for loss, and a pass defensed — which was basically a dropped interception. That occurred in the waning moments of the second quarter with the 49ers driving from Raiders’ territory.
On 1st and 10, Burney did a good job of dropping into his coverage responsibility from his outside linebacker spot, read the quarterback’s eyes and drifted towards the middle of the field to nearly snare the takeaway. Watch the play below:
Yet, Burney’s ability to drop into zone and cover shouldn’t be surprising. His career at Florida began as a defensive back (safety) before dropping down near the box as a linebacker. But his instincts, speed, and versatility was on display with the Gators as he was tied for first on the team in interceptions (two) and was second in sacks (four) in 2022.
But the disappointment Burney displayed as he sat on the field before a teammate lifted him up, is understandable. Coming away with the interception there would’ve capped another instinctive play by the rookie. It was earlier int he second quarter — about midway through — where Burney’s football IQ and athleticism was on full display.
It was another 1st and 10 pass lay, but this time San Francisco dialed up play action. Burney initially moved toward the line of scrimmage to play the run before looking for a coverage assignment. Once he saw no one to trail, he quickly decided to rush 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and Burney’s closing speed was on full display as he dropped the signal caller for the sack. It was the fourth quarterback takedown by the Raiders defense. Check out the play yourself:
If the rookie snagged the interception, he would’ve checked off the requisite “explosive” plays box the Raiders are desperately in need of. Described as the ability to take the ball away or take down the quarterback, Las Vegas lacked much of that explosion outside of Maxx Crosby. Add a linebacker who has not only the speed, but the smarts to make a bee line for the quarterback to that pass rush, and the Raiders defense can go from liability to decent.
Burney, like any other rookie or roster hopeful, must show consistency in performance. A down game against the Los Angeles Rams in today’s preseason clash, for example, will result in a similarly downward opinion of Burney. Nonetheless, his performance against San Francisco was indicative of the good impressions he’s left on the Las Vegas coaching staff in training camp practices.
And if Burney can continue to play fast and effectively, the late-round pick has a solid chance of being int he linebacker rotation for his ability to cover, rush, and stop the run. The current linebacker group of Spillane, Divine Deablo and Luke Masterson are slated to be the starting trio (Spillane in the middle with Deablo and Masterson outside). And having a fourth capable linebacker who can contribute on defense and special teams is a role Burney can fill.