Raider preview

 

FSM Presents: 2021 Raiders Position Preview- Linebackers

Franchise Sports Media

 

The next position we are going to preview for the 2021 Las Vegas Raiders is linebacker. If there has been one glaring position of weakness over the last three decades, it has been the linebacker spot.

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Raiders Wire

Many a name have come and gone over the course of three decades. Players like Tom Benson, Anthony Bell, Rob Holmberg, K.D. Williams, Travian Smith, Sam Williams, Ricky Brown, Trevor Scott, Quintin Groves, Miles Burris, Sio Moore, Curtis Lofton, Marquel Lee, and Tahir Whitehead.

Needless to say, that is not pretty. That is Wanda from In Living Color in Victoria’s Secret when you are stone-cold sober ugly. That is to say mildly, not good. The Raiders have tried some desperate measures as stop gaps over the years. Using a pair of 280-pound defensive ends in Grant Irons and Tyler Brayton as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme in 2005. Signing top-five draft bust Aaron Curry in 2011. Bringing over aging All-Pro NaVarro Bowman in 2017. And infamously signing Vontaze Burfict in 2019.

In 2010, the team thought they were getting their middle linebacker of the future, drafting Alabama All-American Rolando McClain with the number eight pick in the draft. It was lauded as the kind of pick the Raiders had not been making the prior draft, which is to say, smart, safe, and adequately addressing a position of immense need. The only problem is that did not exactly work either.

Did you know that the last legit linebacker the Raiders have had to make a Pro Bowl was in 1988? That was Raider legend, Matt Millen. I say legit because technically, Khalil Mack earned the distinction in 2015 as the first player in NFL history to be All-Pro at both defensive end and linebacker. But Mack was not a linebacker. He was a defensive end in a 4-3 defense.

So, in reality, this franchise has gone 32 years and counting with a single Pro Bowl linebacker. By far the longest drought in terms of having a standout at any position. The team tried to address the position in the 2020 offseason by signing both Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. Littleton struggled wildly in former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme, and Kwiatkoski looked good at times but battled injury in playing just 12 games.

 

As 2021 pushes towards week one, there are some additions, but the truth is, those who will play this season appear to already have been on the roster.

 

Projected starters:

Nick Kwiatkoski

Cory Littleton

Nicholas Morrow

 

Projected reserves:

Tanner Muse

Divine Deablo

Javin White

 

2021 Raiders Positional Preview
Photo Credit: Las Vegas Raiders

On paper, the starters appear to be the same as they were in 2020. Kwiatkoski and Morrow give the Raiders even more speed in coverage. Littleton at the weakside rounds out perhaps the fastest trio of linebackers the franchise has ever had. And while there has been some noise about other players getting some first-team reps at training camp, ultimately, I expect these three to keep their positions come week one.

Kwiatkoski is going to be the key. If he is not healthy or gets beaten out, I think this defense is much the worse for it. He may not have been elite in 2020, but he was better than what the Raiders have run out at the middle linebacker position in recent memory. He is smart, tough, and has great range, all of which will matter in Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 system.

The biggest wildcard of this entire unit is Littleton. Hands down. Lauded as a big-time day one free agency acquisition in 2020, the player in Silver and Black did not look like the player in blue and gold who was upper echelon in 2019 for the Los Angeles Rams. How much of that can be attributed to Paul Guenther’s scheme since many players were often confused and out of position.

But in the case of Littleton, what struck me was how slow he looked on the field. I don’t mean pure foot speed as much as his play recognition and the instinctive ability to attack the ball and/or ball carrier. He often looked like a person going the wrong way through a revolving door, often multiple yards behind backs and tight ends in coverage. To his credit, he did appear to play faster the last couple of weeks of the year, but given his massive contract and the fact it will result in nearly $11 million in dead cap to cut Littleton in 2022, the Raiders might be stuck with him.

 

Lastly, there is annual overachiever Nicholas Morrow. The undrafted free agent out of Greenville College has been the Raiders most consistent linebacker over the last couple of years.

 

Raider Preview
Photo Credit: Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Morrow has parlayed his speed and quickness into pretty much the only real playmaker the Raiders had on defense last year. Given Bradley’s stinginess with the blitz, I will be curious to see how Morrow’s cover skills translate, given that will be a lot of what he will be tasked with within this new defense. Of the three, I feel he is the player that has the biggest chance to truly flourish in 2021.

The depth will be young. And fast. The player turning heads in Henderson right now is Tanner Muse. The converted safety that missed all of 2020 appears to have his great speed translating into opportunity. Considering the limitations he appeared to have in space at Clemson, this is absolutely good news. Muse is definitely one of the players I want to see in the preseason and just how he looks and reacts with actual game speed.

Second-year outside linebacker Javin White looks to assert himself on this roster. The Oakland native and UNLV standout got a little bit of run in 2020 but was mostly relegated to special teams, where he brings much value. White has a fiery personality and plays with an edge, something the Raiders love. It will be interesting to see if he can carve a place out on this team with his hybrid safety/linebacker skills.

Finally, there is an intriguing hybrid player and possessor of the best name in last year’s draft, Divine Deablo. He has been unavailable through most of the offseason activities with a knee injury. Personally, I think he is a better fit at strong safety, but initially, he will play linebacker. So his ability to diagnose and range will be tested. It might be a steep learning curve initially, and I would not be surprised if he ends up on injured reserve this year, much like Muse.

Ultimately though, the question is, once again, is the defensive system and the coach implementing it going to be able to put the players in the best position to succeed. It is one thing to diagnose the players who fit in the system and deploy them properly. That will be Gus Bradley’s challenge. It has been the challenge of every Raiders “coordinator” (let’s be honest, Al Davis was the real defensive coordinator up until his passing in 2011) over the last three decades.

 

The Raiders secondary is next up in our FSM’s 2021 Raiders positional preview. Joe Arrigo will break down the cornerbacks and safties as the Raiders have created competition by adding depth and experience to fix an inexperienced unit.

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CJ Baldwin – Franchise Sports Media

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