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Oakland Raiders 2017 Position Battles: Linebackers

Posted Jul 14, 2017

Time to take a look at the 2017 crop of Raiders linebackers.

MORE POSITION BATTLES: Wide Receivers, Cornerbacks, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Running Backs

Today, we take a look at the Oakland Raiders linebackers.

While the Silver and Black are indeed returning several members from last year’s team, competition appears to be the name of the game for Sal Sunseri’s group heading into 2017.

Let’s spend some time getting to know the players, and see what we can realistically expect from this year’s crop of linebackers.

Tyrell Adams

2016 Recap (Appeared In Six Games)

Adams was signed to the Raiders practice squad on Oct. 5 and was then promoted to the active roster the next month, before the team’s Week 12 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

The former West Georgia Wolf appeared in the Raiders following six games, exclusively on special teams, but he saw a lot more time on defense throughout the team’s Offseason Workout Program.

While Adams only has six games of professional experience under his belt, with as many new faces on the roster, he’ll likely find himself in the mix at the middle linebacker position.

Shilique Calhoun

2016 Recap (Five Tackles, 0.5 Sacks, One Pass Defensed)

Calhoun’s rookie campaign was cut short following a knee injury, but after he completed his rehab, it looks like No. 90 headed straight to the weight room.

Calhoun emerged for the Raiders Offseason Workout Program noticeably bigger than he ended his rookie season, and as he heads into his second training camp, he’s about 20 pounds heavier than he was at the end of 2016.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Calhoun throughout training camp, particularly when the pads come on, and we can get a firsthand look to see how that extra weight is benefiting him.

With as many spots seem to be open in the linebacking corps this season, Calhoun will be an interesting player to monitor.

James Cowser

2016 Recap (Eight Tackles, One Sack)

At season’s end, Cowser had appeared in six games for the Raiders after spending part of the year on the team’s practice squad.

Coming out of Southern Utah, the dynamic linebacker/defensive end was heralded for his ability to bring down the quarterback, and although he tallied just one sack last year, there’s no reason to think that number can’t increase in 2017.

Cowser is a unique player with an interesting skillset, and I’m excited to see how Norton works him into the defensive rotation this season.

Najee Harris

2016 Recap (WITH WAGNER SEAHAWKS: 44 Tackles, 4.5 Tackles For Loss, One Sack, One Interception, Five Passes Defensed)

Harris was one of three players the Raiders signed after successful tryouts at rookie mini-camp.

The collegiate outside linebacker enjoyed a strong final season with the Wagner Seahawks, and while the level of competition he’s going to face in the NFL is night and day compared to what he saw in the Northeast Conference, Harris was still a very productive player during his time in college.

His performance throughout the preseason will be crucial in his bid to make the team’s final roster.

Ben Heeney

2016 Recap (16 Tackles, One Pass Defensed)

Year Three is setting up to be an important one for the former Kansas Jayhawk.

After appearing in every game save one during his rookie season, Heeney’s sophomore campaign was cut short due to an ankle injury that allowed him to only play in four games before being placed on the reserve/injured list.

Now, Heeney is healthy, and with his familiarity with Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.’s system, I expect to see him competing for time at middle linebacker.

Bruce Irvin

2016 Recap (61 Tackles, Seven Sacks, Three Passes Defensed, Six Forced Fumbles)

Irvin certainly made an impact in his first season a Raider.

Not only did he start all 16 games for the first time in his career, but he also finished the year with seven sacks, just one off from his career high, and the most he had in a season since 2012.

Paired with defensive end Khalil Mack, the “Slash Brothers” morphed into one of the most productive rushing tandems in the NFL, and I fully expect Irvin to pick up right where he left off in 2016.

Could double digit sacks be in his future? Only time will tell, but No. 51 said last season that reaching that threshold was one of his career goals.

Cory James

2016 Recap (48 Tackles, One Forced Fumble)

When James was drafted in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, he made a point of saying he was going to start off by contributing on special teams, and then go from there.

Well, while James did indeed see his fair amount of time on the Raiders coverage units, he also became a fixture defensively, appearing in all 16 games, as well as the team’s postseason clash with the Houston Texans.

Throughout his rookie season, James flashed some big play ability – his 16-tackle performance against the Baltimore Ravens comes to mind – and hopefully he’ll able to produce like that on a consistent basis in his second season.

Jelani Jenkins

2016 Recap (With Miami Dolphins: 15 Tackles, One Pass Defensed)

Jenkins joins Sal Sunseri’s group after playing the first four years of his career with the Miami Dolphins.

The former Florida Gator was acquired by the Raiders in free agency, and while he hasn’t appeared in all 16 games since 2013, I expect to see Jenkins in the mix for one of the team’s trio of linebacking roles.

Truth be told, the newcomer is one of the handful of players I’m really excited to see throughout training camp and the preseason.

Marquel Lee

2016 Recap (WITH WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS: 105 Tackles, 20 Tackles For Loss, 7.5 Sacks, Three Forced Fumbles)

It was widely anticipated that the Raiders would select a linebacker at some point in the 2017 NFL Draft, and they did indeed, picking up the physical linebacker in the fifth round.

Lee saw his numbers improve from year-to-year at Wake Forest, and his senior campaign in 2016 was by far his most productive season.

With a perceived need at middle linebacker, Lee’s selection resulted in a ton of fanfare, but Head Coach Jack Del Rio has consistently gone out of his way to make sure not to anoint the rookie as a starter.

While it is important to have realistic expectations for Lee, he’s going to be one of the more exciting players to watch once the team reports to Napa, Calif. for Training Camp 2017.

LaTroy Lewis

2016 Recap (WITH TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS: 36 Tackles, 4.0 Tackles For Loss, 2.5 Sacks, One Fumble Recovery)

Like his fellow linebacker Najee Harris, Lewis was signed by the Silver and Black following an impressive tryout at rookie mini-camp.

Playing at Tennessee, Lewis went up against SEC talent every Saturday, and that type of constant work, week in, and week out should serve him well during his first NFL training camp.

It’s hard to get a read on defensive players until the pads come on, so we’ll see what Lewis is made of in a few week’s time.

Nicholas Morrow

2016 Recap (WITH GREENVILLE PANTHERS: 66 Tackles, 11 Tackles For Loss, Two Sacks, One Forced Fumble, One Fumble Recovery, Four Passes Defensed)

Morrow was signed by the Silver and Black as an undrafted free agent following this year’s draft, out of Greenville University in Illinois.

While Morrow might not be a household name, the Raiders have a history of undrafted players making an impact, and I’m sure he’ll get his fair share of opportunities to make an impression once the preseason rolls around.

Brady Sheldon

2016 Recap (WITH FERRIS STATE BULLDOGS: 54 Tackles, One Sack)

The Silver and Black just signed Sheldon to the roster after a successful tryout at rookie mini-camp.

We have yet to see Sheldon in a Raiders uniform, so we’ll have to wait until training camp to get an accurate gauge of what he brings to the table.

Xavier Woodson-Luster

2016 Recap (WITH ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES: 95 Tackles, 5.5 Tackles For Loss, Two Forced Fumbles, Two Passes Defensed)

Woodson-Luster put together a strong career at Arkansas State before signing with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent.

The product of the Sun Belt Conference will likely have to excel on special teams if he wants to earn his way onto the team’s final roster.

Storyline To Follow:

Competition is the name of the game at training camp, and there might not be a better example of that this season than the team’s linebacking corps.

While there are a few players returning from injury in 2017, it would be premature to say that any of the trio of linebacker jobs are spoken for at this point in the offseason.

I’m genuinely excited to see which players rise up throughout training camp and the preseason, and show that they deserve a spot in the starting 11.

Bruce Irvin will no doubt be one of the three linebackers starting each Sunday, but as far as the other two positions – middle linebacker in particular – it appears to be an open competition.

Buckle up, Raider Nation, because top to bottom, this is going to be a fun battle to watch.