Linebacker Neiron Ball
The Oakland Raiders had a few items on their offseason checklist, but high atop that list was building a stronger, revamped defense, and looking at the moves the team made since the 2015 season wrapped up, on paper, you'd certainly say they did just that.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie attacked free agency, signing linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith, and then used the team's first-round pick to select dynamic safety Karl Joseph, infusing the defensive unit with a wealth of talent. Combine those additions with another year of experience for All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack, and the Silver and Black's defense seems poised to take another forward in 2016.
However, even with all the additions that the team has made, one player and his return to the field has been flying under the radar – linebacker Neiron Ball.
Ball appeared in six games, he started two of them, during his rookie campaign, and was seeing both his time on the field and production increase before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
At the time, the injury was thought to be relatively minor in nature, but after six weeks of being inactive on the active roster, Ball was placed on injured reserve, prematurely ending what had been a promising rookie campaign.
"It's like you're at an ultimate high, and then you go to an ultimate low, but it was something that I had to deal with," said Ball. "It was hard because you want to impress your teammates and your coaches, and once you do that and you get knocked down, it's kind of hard to put it all into perspective. Like I said, there's nothing I can do about it, just keep fighting."
And fight he did.
After missing the entirety of the team's Offseason Workout Program, Ball returned to the field for the start of Training Camp 2016, and while he admitted to at times growing frustrated through the rehabilitation process, during those moments of frustration, he leaned on the support of his teammates, particularly his fellow linebackers.
"That was definitely big," Ball said. "[The linebackers] know, they know the kind of fight I've got. They knew I was going to come back."
From simple text messages to calls, the linebackers made sure Ball felt connected to the team during his rehab, and that genuine care and concern continued once he returned to the team's Alameda, Calif., facility.
"Over the offseason me and him would text back and forth, 'how you doing? How's recovery going' all that stuff," said linebacker Ben Heeney. "Anytime I see him in the weight room or anything, I'm always talking to him, but me and Neiron, are close like that. He's a guy that's one of my boys, so he's someone that I'm always checking up with."
Heeney described Ball as a playmaker who can "play really any position" and the hope would be that infusing a player like him back into the defensive rotation would prove valuable not just from a depth standpoint, but from a production standpoint as well.
Regardless of what the coaching staff asks Ball to do in 2016, he'll be ready to go out and produce, picking up where he left off with his rookie season.
"I want to go out there and show them – show everybody – what I got," Ball said. "You can expect a lot from me; whatever position the coaches want to put me in, I'm here to play for them. It's whatever the team needs, that's what I'm going to do."