One of the greatest weaknesses last season was the linebackers. A mid-season trade for Aaron Curry helped and he became a starter immediately, but there wasn't much at the position. Kamerion Wimbley was solid, but a much better pass rusher with his hand in the dirt than linebacker.
Quentin Groves played well on special teams, but his lackluster play as the starter prompted the trade for Curry. The 2011 linebacker group was poorly constructed and lacked depth and scheme versatility. When Reggie McKenzie was hired, he immediately recognized a need for linebackers and completely revamped the position. Only Curry remains from the last season's 53-man roster and the Raiders added five outside linebackers via the draft and free agency.
The Raiders will deploy a new defensive scheme in 2012, one that includes both three and four linebacker formations and blitzing. Curry's position appears secure for 2012, but beyond that will depend on his play. The starting strong-side linebacker position is open for competition and the Raiders could use a nickel rusher to emerge from this group.
One of the many one-year contracts handed out by McKenzie this offseason was to former Indianapolis Colts' linebacker Philip Wheeler. The Raiders had to bring in a viable option and Wheeler instantly became the favorite to start opposite Curry at strong-side linebacker. Wheeler was a quietly strong run defender for the Colts last season, but the Raiders will push him with Miles Burris.
Miles Burris had great college production as a pass rusher at San Diego State and the Raiders drafted him in the fourth round of April's draft. Burris could see time at both outside linebacker spots and inside. The Raiders might use him like a poor man's Von Miller. Burris doesn't have a lot of experience dropping into coverage and he'll have to work on that area of his game to push for a starting job.
Undrafted rookie Kaelin Burnett should compete with Burris and figure into the outside linebacker position as a pass-rush specialist. Burnett is a former college defensive end that has a good chance to make the roster considering the lack of depth at the position.
Travis Goethel hasn't been able to stay healthy, but he should figure into both the outside and inside linebacker competitions. Goethel lacks superior tools, but he's shown an ability to read, react, stack and shed when healthy. Like many of the other linebackers, Goethel is an unknown commodity in coverage.
Curry, Wheeler, Goethel, Burris and Burnett figure to be the five to watch, but Mario Kurn and Carl Ihenacho are also in the mix. Both Kurn and Ihenacho are former defensive ends and will need to show capability in coverage as well as an ability to get to the quarterback at the NFL level.
The weakness of the group is pass coverage, there is far too many unknowns to be comfortable with the Raiders' linebackers dropping into coverage on a regular basis. That weakness could be good news for strong safety Mike Mitchell. The Raiders have utilized a big nickel package with Mitchell covering the tight end over the past two years and that could happen once again with Mitchell playing outside linebacker on some passing downs.
While Curry and Wheeler are the projected starters, they aren't locks to be every-down linebackers unless they show they can rush the quarterback and drop into coverage as well as they defend the run. The younger players will have to progress quickly to have a chance to earn a starting spot, but figure to help out in passing situations.
The players that rush the quarterback and hone their coverage skills have an excellent chance to get significant playing time in 2012.