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2021 Position Battle: Linebackers crucial to the defense making a leap this season

The intriguing storyline with the linebackers isn't exactly who will be starting, but who will be asked to step up behind the presumed starters.

The linebacking corps is in good hands with its returning three starters from last season in Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow. Littleton and Kwiatkoski both signed with the Raiders last offseason and had hefty expectations on them coming in to lead the defense. While they didn't have bad seasons by any means, production for both dropped off due to injuries and new adjustments to their new scheme under former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley touched on what he's seen from Littleton during minicamp and what he expects to get out of the Pro Bowl linebacker moving forward.

"I've been impressed with him and his speed. He's a very skilled linebacker," said Bradley. "One of the things is his physical nature, that's the thing we are looking at right now and challenging him on, but he has it in him. But matchups, what I think is great about Cory is the matchups he allows us to have.

"He's really a skilled cover guy, what I've seen so far. ... When the bullets fly and we go full speed, I think we'll have a better sense of where everybody's at. And I think the other thing we've seen on him is he's really a good edge setter. So, I think he has that ability maybe in base to be more of an outside linebacker for us too."

The most pleasant surprise from the Raiders linebacking corps was undrafted free agent Nicholas Morrow, who is going into his fifth season as a Raider after re-signing with the team this offseason. Morrow capitalized in the time Littleton and Kwiatkoski were sidelined and established himself as a vital piece to the Raiders defense. Head Coach Jon Gruden tabbed Morrow's "best game as a Raider" as Week 9's matchup against the Denver Broncos in which he racked up five tackles, a sack and two pass deflections in Littleton's absence.

As for the rest of the linebackers, anything can happen. The Raiders possess a lot of young talent in the position group that will be looking to set themselves apart in training camp. The Silver and Black will begin to look for what they can get out of their 2020 and '21 draft picks in Tanner Muse and Divine Deablo. Muse missed his entire rookie season due to a foot injury coming off an impressive collegiate career at Clemson University, where he was a two-time National Champion and earned First Team All-ACC honors. Deablo was also First Team All-ACC at strong safety at Virginia Tech before making the shift to outside linebacker. The Raiders' fourth-round pick is 6-foot-3, 226 pounds and ran a 4.42 at his Pro Day, giving him the perfect size and speed to make the transition.

"[The Raiders] discussed moving me towards the box, so WILL linebacker specifically. Really just matching up with tight ends and playing the run," Deablo said during his introductory conference call after being drafted. "That's the main way they want to use me.

"At the Senior Bowl … they moved me to linebacker down there and I feel like I showed my potential at that position, and Pro Day, I just showed what I could do athletically. And that just caught the Raiders' attention and thankful they picked me up."

The Raiders also brought in former New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee, who has over 250 tackles to his name and was on the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs team that won Super Bowl LIV. Lee will be a good addition to the team to push the young linebacking corps through Training Camp.

Bold Predictions

Not only do I expect for Cory Littleton to return to form this upcoming season, but I also believe that "The Greenville Monster" Nicholas Morrow will have his best season to date as well. Morrow is one of the longest tenured Raiders on the roster and will be asked to not only step up with his play, but as a leader for the rest of the defense. Many coaches and players has sung the praises of the outside linebacker and I'm on the same accord.

I also believe that Javin White, the former UNLV standout, will continue to catch the eye of his coaches and teammates in training camp and work his way up from the practice squad. In the few occasions he did see some snaps on the main roster, he made the best of it and he definitely has the high motor needed to keeping pushing on this Raiders roster.

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