Marquel Lee joined the Raiders last year as a fifth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, and showed some potential throughout his rookie season. At a position the team didn't necessarily have a lot of depth at, along with fellow rookie Nicholas Morrow, Lee was thrown into the mix immediately. He appeared in 13 games, started in six of them, and finished the season with 22 tackles.
I don't think we need to dive too deeply into why last year didn't work out for the Silver and Black, but it's worth mentioning the change at defensive coordinator certainly didn't benefit the defense, especially the younger players. For a rookie trying to navigate his way through his first NFL season, transitioning from college to the pros can be challenging enough, but the personnel changes would cause anyone to be thrown for a loop.
Regardless of the confusing haze Lee and most of the team found themselves in last year, he's now starting to feel comfortable as he gets ready to embark on his second NFL season. That feeling of comfort is a product of a system that fits his style, a group of veterans that he's grown with during the offseason, and a role he's finally grasping.
"I know my role in the game, and with this defense," Lee said after practice Monday. "So just trying to play to it, and do the best I can at that. Day in and day out."
He elaborated on what his role exactly is with this team:
"Hammer guy, energetic guy, that run-stopper, base [defender], and everything, and just getting our defense together, like, being the MIKE linebacker."
The Raiders roster had an average age of 26.9 years last season, which is why the team made it a priority this offseason to go out and acquire veteran, experienced talent. With additions like cornerback Leon Hall, linebacker Tahir Whitehead, and running back Doug Martin, the team added a wealth of knowledge to the roster, knowledge that Lee and the younger players are benefitting from.
"It's been great, to be honest," Lee said when asked what it's been like working with the veterans. "We have three guys that [we] really can look to as young players, with [linebackers] Derek [Johnson], Tahir [Whitehead], and Emmanuel Lamur. So, those three guys, that combination, you can pick from them and get what you need from each guy, so it's been a great help."
The wisdom Johnson, Whitehead, and Lamur shared with Lee seems to be working, considering No. 55 had a strong performance against the Detroit Lions Friday. Lee finished as the team's second-leading tackler behind fellow linebacker Kyle Wilber. The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon demonstrated great instincts on his six tackles, and his performance caught the attention of his head coach.
"There is a guy that really stepped up," Jon Gruden stated Monday. "He had a great game. He's physical. I think he's more and more of a complete linebacker. He's getting more comfortable in pass coverage. I think he's a presence in the middle of our defense right now. It's something that is not going unnoticed with his teammates and coaches."
Lee is still only 22 years of age, and he's got a lot of time to develop. Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther is not only known for his scheme, but his ability to help young linebackers to mature, and grow as players. His system is something Lee believes he can flourish in, and having players like Lamur who've known the system for years now are helping him excel in the classroom, and on the field.
"I feel like we've had a chance to grow as a core together, going through offseason workouts, and then summer workouts, and then into training camp," Lee said in reference to working with his running mates. "Just being around each other all the time and stuff, grow as a core, we have each others backs out there. Also having Emmanuel, he's been in the system for a long time, since he came out of college. He's a great help, like, he knows the ins and outs, and if we have a question we go to him — or any of the guys — but Emmanuel for sure knows the ins and outs of this defense."
As time goes on, Lee and Co., will continue to build chemistry and improve on the foundation they're establishing here in camp. With a vote of confidence from his coaches, and peers, Lee is confident he can make a bigger impact in 2018.