Heading into the 2016 season, the defensive side of the football for the Oakland Raiders was infused with a wealth of talent. From cornerback Sean Smith to safety Reggie Nelson, the Raiders' front office addressed the depth on the defense from top to bottom, including the linebackers.
The big addition to the position group was outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, who after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Seattle Seahawks, joined the Silver and Black this offseason in a move that reunited him with defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. Norton has repeatedly said that the team's defense in 2016 will be multiple in how they attack opposing offenses, and the versatility of the Raiders' linebackers is key for making sure that happens.
As the team gets ready to begin Training Camp 2016, let's take an early look at the linebackers and what battles you should keep an eye on throughout the preseason.
Linebacker – Neiron Ball – Second Season – University of Florida
After a promising start to his rookie season, Ball's 2015 campaign ended prematurely when he was placed on Injured Reserve December 12 with a knee injury. In total, the rangy linebacker appeared in six games for the Raiders, making two starts, and he was productive during his time on the field.
However, the severity of Ball's injury remains uncertain, as he was unable to participate in the majority of the team's on-field work during the Offseason Workout Program.
Through six games, Ball showed that he can be a productive NFL player, but all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if you can't find your way on to the football field.
Hopefully the former Florida Gator will be healthy enough to return to work when the team gets to Training Camp 2016, and if he is, Ball's production and versatility would be a welcome addition to the Silver and Black's defense.
Linebacker – Daren Bates – Fourth Season – Auburn
Bates joined the Silver and Black this March after spending the first three seasons of his career with the St. Louis Rams.
Primarily heralded for his work on special teams – Bates was named a special teams captain for the Rams in 2015 – the former Auburn Tiger figures to fill much the same role for the Raiders in 2016.
While Bates will no doubt be a key cog on special teams coordinator Brad Seely's unit in the upcoming season, depth across the board is always key, so it'll be interesting to see how the former Auburn Tiger responds to his first season in Norton's defensive system.
Linebacker – Shilique Calhoun – Rookie – Michigan State
To me, Calhoun is one of the most intriguing players in this position group heading into 2016.
The Silver and Black selected the athletic linebacker in the third round (No. 75 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft, and so far the Michigan State-product hasn't disappointed.
Throughout the Offseason Workout Program, Calhoun has routinely jumped out during practice, working with both his hand in the dirt, as well as standing up.
Calhoun said he's been working at both the SAM and LEO positions, and I'm excited to see how Norton utilizes him once the pads come on.
Linebacker/Defensive End – James Cowser – Rookie – Southern Utah
Don't sleep on James Cowser.
The 25-year-old rookie was dominant during his time at Southern Utah, finishing his career as the FCS all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss.
Cowser was fun to watch during the Offseason Workout Program – he's a big, powerful man who routinely got after the quarterback from a variety of locations along the defensive front.
He's currently listed as a linebacker/defensive end, and that versatility is something I'm looking forward to seeing as Training Camp 2016 progresses.
With long, blonde hair flowing out of the back of his helmet, Cowser is hard to miss, and he's definitely a player you'll want to keep an eye on through the preseason.
Linebacker – Ben Heeney – Second Season – Kansas
As the 2015 season wore on, Heeney became a key contributor on the Raiders' defense, and he'll be asked to fill a big role for the team in 2016.
During his rookie season, Heeney appeared in 15 games, starting three games over the final quarter of the season, and finished the year with 39 total tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Heading into 2016, Heeney – along with linebacker Malcolm Smith – will handle a majority of the work at middle linebacker, so be sure to keep an eye on how the former Kansas Jayhawk adjusts to now being the man in the middle of the defense on a consistent basis.
Outside Linebacker – Bruce Irvin – Fifth Season – West Virginia
Action photos of the Raiders linebacker corps.
The Raiders signed Irvin this offseason to serve as a complementary rusher to pair with defensive end Khalil Mack.
Affectionately nicknamed the "Slash Brothers" because of their versatility along the defensive front, Irvin and Mack will be asked to be disruptors on the defense and make the lives of opposing quarterbacks difficult.
Heading into 2016, the expectations for Irvin are high, but that's fine with the outspoken linebacker, and Irvin isn't shying away from them in the least.
"They didn't bring me here to be a follower," Irvin said. "I'm a very outspoken guy. You guys will learn that about me. I'm coming to be a leader. I'm not stepping on any toes, but if I have something to say, I am going to say it."
Linebacker – Cory James – Rookie – Colorado State
After playing his college football at Colorado State, James was selected by the Raiders in the sixth round (No. 194 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft.
James has been up front from the start – he plans to initially crack the lineup on special teams – but with 25 total sacks during his career as a Ram, he more than has the ability to work his way into the defensive rotation at some point.
At what point during the season that happens remains to be seen, so I anticipate seeing James spending a majority of his time on special teams – at least to begin with.
Linebacker – John Lotulelei – Third Season – Nevada-Las Vegas
Lotulelei began the 2015 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, appearing in four games before he joined the Silver and Black November 25. He spent four weeks on the Practice Squad before being elevated to the active roster for the final two games of the season, although he was inactive for both contests.
Heading into 2016, Lotulelei had the benefit of going through the entirety of the Offseason Workout Program with the Raiders, so hopefully that familiarity and comfort in the Raiders' defense will pay dividends for him going forward.
Linebacker – Malcolm Smith – Sixth Season – University of Southern California
In just his first season in Silver and Black, Smith was arguably the most valuable member of the Raiders' defense.
Not only did he start all 16 games – playing nearly every defensive snap in the process – he led the team with a career-high 143 tackles, and also ranked second on the team with four sacks.
In addition to his on-field production, Smith also provided some much-needed consistency in the linebacking corps, and as he prepares for the 2016 season, he's ready to embrace more of a leadership role for the Raiders' defense.
"Coming into last year I was ready for those responsibilities," said Smith. "It's something I wanted. I don't know if it was known [by] Raiders' fans and stuff like that, but it's important for me to kind of step into that role, and lead where I can, just set an example at work every day like I'm supposed to."
Much will be expected from the veteran linebacker in 2016, and he'll be expected to improve upon his production from 2015.
Linebacker – Korey Toomer – Third Season – Idaho
After joining the Raiders' Practice Squad October 27, the former Idaho Vandal appeared in 10 games for the Silver and Black in 2015, primarily on special teams.
While most of his contributions were on special teams last season, Toomer did get a fair amount of run between the hash marks during the Offseason Workout Program, so hopefully he can find a way to work his into the defensive rotation on a more consistent basis in 2016.
Linebacker – Kyrie Wilson – Rookie – Fresno State
After a four-year career at Fresno State, Wilson signed with the Silver and Black as an undrafted free agent this offseason.
During his time as a Bulldog, Wilson was productive, and as an UDFA, he'll have to flash that ability to be productive for the Raiders' coaching staff early in training camp if he wants to extend his career in Silver and Black.
Wilson will be fighting an uphill battle to make the final roster, but anything can happen once the pads come on.
Keep An Eye On…
The two players I'm really looking forward to watching throughout Training Camp 2016 are a pair of rookies – Shilique Calhoun and James Cowser.
Calhoun and Cowser are interesting to me for a variety of reasons: where will they be lining up along the defensive front? How will defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. utilize them? Will Cowser find a way to make the active roster?
The pair of rookies – who each boast a unique skillset – certainly looks the part of NFL linebackers, and I'm excited to see how their games translate once live action is allowed.
The Silver and Black boast a young, talented group of linebackers, and hopefully Calhoun and Cowser can be key contributors for the group.