The Oakland Raiders ranked No. 23 in rushing yards against last season and had the No. 26 ranked defense overall. A primary reason for the lack of success was the porous play in the middle of Oakland’s defense.
Surprisingly, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie did not draft or sign any starting-caliber middle linebackers leaving a wide open position battle between Raiders linebackers Marquel Lee, Ben Heeney, Jelani Jenkins and Cory James.
LB Cory James
James played in all 16 games last season and started in five, but his play was often sub-par. He graded out as the No. 77 best linebacker with a Pro Football Focus player grade of 44.3, not too much to be excited about.
However, James has great speed for a linebacker and can cover sideline to sideline, but is very small at just 6-foot-1, 221 pounds.
Currently, he is projected to be the starting linebacker, but he will need to live in the weight room this offseason for him to make a notable impact this fall.
LB Jelani Jenkins
Jenkins was brought in this offseason after having a horrible season in Miami racking up the second worst PFF player grade amongst any linebacker (31.4).
It was definitely a down season for Jenkins, but the numbers are so weak that is hard to imagine him making any real push for a starting position.
He will have to find his niche playing special teams and rotationally on defense.
LB Marquel Lee
Lee was just drafted by Oakland in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft and has immediately been thrown into this competition.
The former Demon Deacon has the prototypical size at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds and has great college production with 105 tackles (20 for loss) and 7.5 sacks in his last season at Wake Forest.
He has everything one would look for, but it is hard to win the starting middle linebacker position without having an in-depth understanding of the defense, which is strenuous for any rookie.
Therefore, Lee will most likely not be the starter Day 1 but will earn more playing time as the year progresses.
LB Ben Heeney
Heeney had a productive rookie season (71.4 PFF player grade) totaling 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Unfortunately, Heeney missed most of last season making it hard to gauge if he has improved since his rookie year.
Nonetheless, he is a smaller linebacker at only 6-feet, 230 pounds and lacks top-end speed making it hard to ever picture him as a starting linebacker even with the lack of talent currently in Oakland.
Heeney might push James or Lee for the starting position, but his physical tools may inhibit him from ever becoming the every down starter.