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12 Targets to Overhaul Raiders Linebacker Position

Moe Moton
las vegas raiders news linebackers

The Raiders linebacker corps needs serious work this offseason. But how will Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden address filling this need?

With one of the most predictable offseason moves, the Las Vegas Raiders released linebacker Tahir Whitehead on Monday surprising practically no one. Whitehead struggled in coverage, allowing 14 touchdowns over the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus. His role took a hit in the last three weeks of the 2019 campaign leaving the Silver and Black no option but to find upgrades for the second level of its defense.

Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow are the most recognizable names left on the linebacker depth chart heading into the team’s first year in Las Vegas. The former suffered an ankle injury, which limited him to five games in 2019. The latter saw a significant increase in playing time but went through foreseeable rough patches, logging 73 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception while allowing 41 receptions out of 57 targets for 420 yards and two touchdowns.

Lee has yet to play a prominent role within the Raiders defense since entering the league as a fifth-rounder in 2017. With limited coverage skills, the 24-year-old isn’t a lock to remain with the team next season. If he sticks, consider him a backup or special-teamer.

We could see the Las Vegas Raiders bring stability to the linebacker position for the first time since Greg Biekert and then Kirk Morrison, going back over two decades ago.

As for Morrow, he’s going to become a restricted free agent. The Raiders can match offers to retain him. The third-year veteran still has room to develop and should hang around for at least another season.

Other than Lee and Morrow, the linebacker corps doesn’t have much playing experience on defense, which means we’re going to see an overhaul at the position this offseason. At least, we’d hope so if this club plans to compete in a division with tight ends Travis Kelce, Noah Fant and Hunter Henry – if he re-signs with the Los Angeles Chargers.

We could see the Las Vegas Raiders bring stability to the linebacker position for the first time since Greg Biekert and then Kirk Morrison, going back over two decades ago.

According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, Christian Kirksey, who was released by the Cleveland Browns Tuesday, will visit Wednesday. Team brass isn’t wasting any time in pursuit of upgrades.

Let’s briefly run through 12 linebacker options between free agency and the draft—players who could patch up the Raiders defense next season and beyond and give their defense a fighting chance.

Top Free-Agent Targets

Cory Littleton

Littleton is a favorite within the Raider Nation fanbase. He rose through the ranks within former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense, lining up as a smaller inside linebacker (6’3″, 228 lbs) between a pair of edge-rushers in an odd-man front.

Las Vegas Raiders news linebackers Cory Littleton free agents
Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Cory Littleton (58) runs the ball during the second half of a game against the Carolina Panthers. Photo: AP Mike McCarn)

As a starter over the last two seasons, Littleton hasn’t missed a game, recording 259 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 22 pass breakups, and five interceptions. He projects as a versatile weak-side linebacker who could do wonders for the Raiders if they have a strong front line to keep him clean.

Remember, Littleton had defensive tackle Aaron Donald garnering most of the attention near the line of scrimmage in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he’ll provide impact plays in pass coverage.

Joe Schobert

Joe Schobert feels like the 1B option among fans clamoring for much-needed linebacker upgrades. He’s a different player than Littleton. Believe it or not, despite his size (6’1″, 245 lbs), the fourth-year veteran isn’t the most efficient tackler. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s missed 57 takedowns over the last three seasons.

Las Vegas Raiders news linebackers Joe Schobert free agents
Schobert is certainly a target for Las Vegas in the 2020 offseason and would help the Raiders in the middle and in coverage. Photo: USA Today

However, Schobert has developed into one of the better cover middle linebackers in the league, logging nine pass breakups and four interceptions this past season. His career completion rate allowed is 72.8 percent, per PFF. The 26-year-old isn’t a thumper, but he’s cerebral as the centerpiece of a defense. Don’t sleep on his pass-rushing skills either.

De’Vondre Campbell

De’Vondre Campbell doesn’t garner enough recognition for his versatility—capable of playing all three Raiders linebacker spots. He’d likely flank the middle defender on the strong side. The 26-year-old possesses the play strength and quickness to pressure the pocket if used effectively.

Las Vegas Raiders news DeVondre Campbell free agents falcosn
Campbell would bolster the Raiders pass rush in the middle. Photo: USA Today

At 6’4″, 232 pounds, Campbell can get his hands up to knock down passes near the line of scrimmage, reroute tight ends and reach in on short throws to disrupt the aerial attack. The four-year veteran has 16 pass breakups and three interceptions in 59 contests. Campbell could handle plenty of snaps as a stabilizing presence.

Bargain-Bin Free-Agent Targets

Nick Vigil

Since taking over as the Raiders defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther has brought linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Vontaze Burfict from Cincinnati to the Silver and Black. According to NFL Insider Adam Caplan of Inside the Birds, another Bengals defender could follow suit.

“One LB believed to be on their radar is Nick Vigil (3rd-round pick in 2016),” Caplan wrote.

las Vegas raiders nick vigil free agent paul guenther
Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther drafted Vigil. Photo: USA Today

Obviously, Vigil knows Guenther’s system, playing within the scheme for two seasons between 2016 and 2017. He’s a predictable low-cost option with upside because of his knowledge. The 26-year-old needs to work on his tackling angles but showed notable improvement in pass coverage this past year.

Nick Kwiatkoski

Nick Kwiatkoski could become the next man up if the Chicago Bears let Danny Trevathan walk. The West Virginia product has a safety background with the ability to cover in space, hit with power and take down the quarterback. As Kwiatkoski’s workload increased so did his production with the Bears.

In 2019, Kwiatkoski logged 76 tackles, three sacks, four pass breakups and an interception while playing 48 percent of the defensive snaps. He’s an ascending playmaker who could break out in a full-time starting role.

Nigel Bradham

The Philadelphia Eagles released Nigel Bradham in February. Well, one team’s cut could become another club’s low-risk, high-reward pickup. This past season, Bradham’s coverage slipped a bit, but he also battled an ankle injury, which cost him four games.

Throughout his career, Bradham had been one of better coverage linebackers who’s also in the right spots to make stops against the run. He’s registered at least five pass breakups and 61 tackles for each of the last four terms. Going into his age-31 season, he’s worth a one- or two-year deal until a younger linebacker earns his stripes.

Day 1 Draft Targets

Patrick Queen, LSU

Patrick Queen’s arrow points straight up. He took over a starting inside linebacker role this past season at LSU, so we probably haven’t seen the best of him yet. However, if general manager Mike Mayock and Guenther want someone to step in right away as a Raiders linebacker, the 20-year-old’s inexperience may knock him down a few spots on the Raiders’ draft board.

las vegas raiders draft patrick queen lsu
LSU rookie Patrick Queen will be a target for the Raiders in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Photo: Getty Images

On the flip side, Queen’s potential could turn skeptics into believers, especially if you watched him fly all over the field and check all the boxes of a prototype pro-level linebacker. He recorded three sacks, used his 4.5-40 speed to maintain step with tight ends and logged 12 tackles for a loss during the 2019 term.

Queen is an intriguing prospect because of what he could become on the pro level.

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma

Those who prefer Kenneth Murray over Queen probably like to know what they’re getting in a prospect rather than leaning more so on projection. The Oklahoma product finished his collegiate career as a more established figure within his defensive unit. He served as a two-year captain and led the Sooners in tackles for each of the last two terms.

Las Vegas Raiders news linebackers draft kenneth murray oklahoma
Kenneth Murray is already a fan-favorite for selection by Las Vegas in the 2020 NFL Draft. Photo: USA Today

At 6’2″, 241 pounds, Murray has the size with a muscular frame that Guenther typically likes to see on his Raiders linebacker roster. He’s also an athletic type with the ability to grow as a coverage defender. The Raiders can move him to different spots across the second level of their defense, pending the other components of the linebacker rotation.

As a more polished prospect, Murray is more equipped to start Week 1, but the Raiders would hope to see his coverage skills blossom throughout the season.

Day 2 Draft Targets

Troy Dye, Oregon

If you’ve watched Troy Dye at Oregon, three positive traits come to mind, speed, coverage and football instincts. That’s exactly what the Raiders need at linebacker to address their perpetual tight end issue.

Raiders Troy Dye oregon nfl draft 2020
Day 2 possible selection Dye may be a bit skinny, but his skills could translate to a great addition to the Las Vegas Raiders. Photo: Quack Attack

Although Dye played with a slender build (6’3″, 231 lbs), time in a professional facility should help him pack on some muscle to handle bigger bodies. He played through some significant injuries this past season, a broken thumb and torn meniscus and still performed at a high level, which is an important trait in a transition to the pros.

At Oregon, Dye’s numbers stack up across the board, logging 391 tackles, 41.5 for loss, 13 sacks, 14 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State

The Raiders could utilize Akeem Davis-Gaither in a similar fashion to safety Karl Joseph. The Appalachian State product has a much leaner frame (6’1″, 224 lbs), but he doesn’t shy away from contact. Still, he can play the role of a playmaking missile in various packages.

As a nickel back or a weak-side linebacker, Davis-Gaither could shadow pass-catchers in the middle of the field and sniff out the run with ease using his fluid movement and processing skills. Guenther can also unleash him as a blitzer. In coverage, he logged 16 pass breakups over the last two campaigns.

Day 3 Draft Targets

Jacob Phillips, LSU

During the College Football Playoffs, Jacob Phillips made the watch list, and he’s back. Queen garners most of the praise as the LSU linebacker set to go in the first round, but don’t overlook the program’s leading tackler (113) this past term.

Phillips doesn’t have Queen’s athleticism or Murray’s leadership traits, but he’s a solid tackler that won’t allow too many broken plays and knows how to pick his spots going downhill against the run. The two-year starter has lower-body explosiveness, logging the third-best vertical jump (39 inches) among linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine, which suggests the ability to burst out of his stance.

Logan Wilson, Wyoming

Here’s a draft gem that may fall to Day 3 and go down as a steal. Logan Wilson has experience at safety but quickly caught on as a linebacker at Wyoming. Yet, he kept and displayed his coverage skills, recording 14 passes breakups and 10 interceptions in four collegiate terms. Still, he registered at least 94 tackles in each campaign.

Beyond the on-field output, Wilson also has the intangibles as a three-time captain with the football intelligence of a grizzled veteran. At 6’2″, 241 pounds, he also checks the size box for Guenther. Finally, the Wyoming product will seek out the opposition and hammer a pass-catcher or running back with some attitude:

Wilson is the type of player who doesn’t generate a lot of buzz at a non-premium position from a small program and develops into an early NFL success story.

What Will It Take To Fix Linebacker Issues?

Bradham is the only player listed above who’s 30 years or older because of his much-needed coverage skills, but the Raiders have to move away from the Band-Aid business when addressing the linebacker position.

The unit needs athleticism and youth with a veteran or knowledgeable presence to glue the pieces together. That’s where Bradham and Vigil come in as bargain-bin options, though, neither should be the focal point of a revamped group.

This list goes through 12 names because the Raiders don’t have a reliable starting-caliber player at the position going into free agency. Head coach Jon Gruden, Mayock and Guenther should come to an agreement on at least three acquisitions at linebacker.

As shown in the categories above, one from each group (top free agents, bargain-bin options and draftees) would suffice. The Raiders can’t afford to continuously neglect or fail to equip the defense with versatile playmakers capable of covering an increasing number of pass-catching running backs and tight ends in the league.