The Oakland Raiders have searched for years now to find a core trio of linebackers they can hang their hat on, and in 2019 I believe they've found it.
Tahir Whitehead played an absurd amount of snaps last season and was the lone veteran presence in the linebacker room, but through free agency, Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden made it a priority to add fellow veterans next to him this season. With Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall now in the mix, Whitehead will share the load with two linebackers who have proven what they're capable of during their impressive NFL careers.
This is a group that needs to take a step forward in 2019, and I expect they'll rise to the occasion; let's discuss.
Battle to watch:
EP: We likely won't know the full extent of this "battle" – if it even turns out to be one – until we've seen a few preseason games, but I wonder if we should pencil in Vontaze Burfict as the Raiders starting middle linebacker, or if someone else will push him for that job?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that if someone were to push the veteran linebacker it would second-year player Jason Cabinda, who after starting his rookie campaign on the team's practice squad, ultimately made 10 appearances – including three starts – for the Silver and Black.
Now, is there a disparity in experience between Cabinda's 10 appearances and Burfict's 75?
And was Burfict – and his intricate knowledge of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system – brought in to Oakland this offseason to step in and solidify that middle linebacker position?
The answer to both questions is a resounding, yes, but nevertheless, I wonder if Cabinda shows enough during training camp and the preseason to get a legit shot at the job.
KM: Assuming everyone is healthy, I expect Tahir Whitehead, Brandon Marshall, and Vontaze Burfict to be the Raiders starting base linebackers in 2019. Whitehead is entering his second year in Paul Guenther's system, Marshall is a pro's pro with Super Bowl experience, and Burfict played in Guenther's system in Cincinnati for years.
That being said, I think this position battle will come down to the younger guys on the roster.
Jason Cabinda started his NFL career on the Raiders practice squad, but quickly rose through the ranks to appear in 10 games, and started in three. The former Penn State Nittany Lion displayed a high NFL IQ by commanding the middle of the field and making plays. He finished his rookie campaign with one quarterback hit and 21 tackles — not bad for a guy that started on the P-squad. Cabinda has plenty of potential, but he's not the only young gun with promise.
Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow have contributed in spurts the last couple years, and both have found ways to be productive outside of their reps on defense. Each offers production on special teams — Cabinda has also been known to be a factor in Rich Bisaccia's unit — and their athleticism makes them intriguing prospects in Guenther's system.
This will be a three-man race during training camp and the preseason.
Previewing the Raiders linebackers heading into 2019 Training Camp. Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall were both added during free agency.
Storyline to follow:
EP: The continuity between the new guys.
There's a chance that come Week 1 Tahir Whitehead is the only starting linebacker who was on the roster a season ago.
If Vontaze Burfict handles business and takes hold of the starting middle linebacker job, and Brandon Marshall is healthy and ready to rock, two of the three starting linebackers for Paul Guenther could be players the team signed in free agency.
The trio of linebackers are helped immensely in this regard by the fact that they're all veterans with a combined 21 NFL seasons under their belt, but even so, it'll take time for the trio to figure out the ins and outs of how they play the game.
Throw in the fact that we hardly saw Brandon Marshall at all throughout the Offseason Workout Program, and getting consistent reps for all three of those guys – together – will be a point of emphasis once the team arrives in Napa.
KM: Brandon Marshall's health.
Prying the Super Bowl champion away from the Denver Broncos during free agency was a big win for the Silver and Black. The former member of the University of Nevada, Reno Wolfpack was a fixture on defense for the Raiders' AFC West rival, and at 29 years old he brings plenty of knowledge and experience to a linebacker room that was fairly young last season.
Marshall has a lot to offer, but after playing in 11 games last season, and missing the majority of OTAs with an injury, his health will be the biggest storyline throughout camp. Now, it's not a big deal when a savvy vet misses time during OTAs because… well, it's OTAs, but if he continues to be limited to the sidelines then there might be some cause for concern.
There's plenty of time between now and Week 1, but the Raiders need Marshall to be healthy this season.
Keep an eye on…
EP: Brandon Marshall.
As I said earlier, we really haven't seen much of Marshall on the field since he signed with the Raiders in late-March, but I really wouldn't be too concerned about that just yet.
Now, if the veteran linebacker starts missing substantial chunks of time during training camp in Napa, then maybe we can express a little concern, but for a guy like Marshall with 63 starts to his name, missing action isn't the spring too big of a deal.
That said, getting him back on the field in a hurry would be a welcome sight for Paul Guenther and the Raiders defense as a whole, particularly considering how productive No. 54 has been throughout his career.
There's a hope that he can solidify one of the team's outside linebacker slots, so be sure to keep your eyes squarely on Marshall particularly once the preseason gets underway.
KM: After a strong rookie season, I'm going to roll with Jason Cabinda.
The 23-year-old caught a lot of people by surprise last year — myself included — and it felt like he continued to build on strong performances week-by-week. I don't believe it was a fluke, but I want to see how Cabinda ramps up his game during training camp. The offseason is a crucial time for athletes to enhance hone their skills when the spotlight isn't on them, and I hope he's taken that to heart.
You can never have enough depth and if Cabinda takes another leap forward in 2019 we might be discussing whether he deserves to start.
Question you want answered by the end of training camp:
EP: Which young player finds themselves as a key piece in the 2019 linebacking corps?
Jason Cabinda, Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow have all had positive stretches in a Raiders uniform, so I'm curious if they'll once again be in the mix this year.
Don't forget about undrafted free agents Te'von Coney and Koa Farmer either; without fail, every year an UDFA or two balls out in camp and earns a spot on the 53-man roster.
KM: I know Eddie will appreciate this; I'm curious to see what Jon Gruden and the coaching staff decide to do with James Cowser. He's been converted from a linebacker to a defensive end, then back to a linebacker more times than I can count on one hand. Cowser is stuck in an awkward middle ground and I hope the coaching staff commits to him because he's a good special teams player and he provides depth.