Everyone knows about the Oakland Raiders offensive line woes, and the need for some new blood in that unit. But this coming year, the linebacker position is just as important to the club.
The Raiders' defense has consistently been ranked near the bottom of the league against the run, both in yards per game and yards per carry, and the linebackers have to take their share of the blame for that, as poor tackling and gap responsibility have often been the cause.
To make the problem even more acute though, four of the Oakland’s linebackers could become free agents in March (depending on a new CBA being reached).
That includes all three starters from 2009.
So even if linebacker wasn’t on the "to do list" before, it certainly is now.
Kirk Morrison , Thomas Howard , Jon Alston , and Ricky Brown are all free agents in 2010, pending the above condition.
Morrison has been an integral part of the Raiders defense ever since his rookie year, and has led the team in tackles at middle linebacker the last two years. There has been criticism though, that his tackles statistics are over inflated by making too many stops downfield, when he should have made them closer to the line.
His play would have surely have been better with an upgrade at defensive tackle, but it has looked at times like Morrison lacked the size and physicality to be a premier run stopper at the position. Morrison has not yet stated that he will return to Oakland in 2010.
A second round pick out of UTEP in 2006, Thomas Howard has been a fixture at weakside linebacker since his rookie year. He lead all linebackers in the league with six interceptions in 2007, with two returned for touchdowns, but has only had one since.
Thomas’ effectiveness against the run has also been questioned, with his tackle numbers dropping off in 2009. He was moved to the strong side late in the year as part of a Raiders defensive shake up, but the problems against the run remained. He hasn’t built on the promise he showed in his second year, and that might bring into question his return to the club.
Ricky Brown came out of nowhere as an undrafted free agent to claim the starting strong side linebacker spot on the team, and even pushed Kirk Morrison for the start at middle linebacker in training camp.
When healthy, Brown has been very effective and is a smart football player, but has been placed on injured reserve each of the last two years due to season ending injuries. Brown would be cheap to resign, and could hold down a starting spot if he could resolve his durability issues.
Jon Alston was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2006, and although he never made it there, he has fitted in well at Oakland. He has shown some good play on the strong side, and has been a key contributor on special teams, but like Brown, has durability issues and finished the season on injured reserve.
Alston is capable of making a bid for a starting spot if he can stay healthy, and if the Raiders can keep him.
The Raiders are unlikely to resign all four players, and my feeling is that Thomas Howard may be the odd man out. Even if Morrison is re signed, Oakland may take a long look at Rolando McLain in the draft if he is still there when the Raiders pick at number eight.
McLain is as sure a tackler as there is in the draft, and has the kind of physicality that the Raiders defense has lacked over the last few years. Brandon Spikes from Florida may also be worth evaluating.
Middle linebackers' draft value has dropped in the past few years, with many teams being unwilling to spend high draft picks on what can essentially be a two down player. Last year was a prime example, when excellent players like Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis slipped to the second round.
There are an impressive group of free agent linebackers available this year, which includes Shawne Merriman, Karlos Dansby, DeMeco Ryans, Keith Bulluck, and Chris Gocong.
Either way, Oakland has to decide who they want playing linebacker for them in 2010 and beyond, because given their free agent situation, it is going to be at the top of a very long list this off season.