Position outlook: Linebackers

One story in a series of position outlooks for the Oakland Raiders. Today, here's a look at linebacker:

Looking back: Like pretty much every position, the play of this unit suffered in 2003 but it had as much to with the diminished quality of play in the front four. In addition, this spot was also hit with injuries beginning with Bill Romanowski playing just three games after enduring another of about 15 known concussions in his 16-year career.

The Raiders were hoping for a continued look at Travian Smith, who is a career backup that has stood out on special teams. Smith's season ended with a knee injury. Staring weak-side linebacker Eric Barton was a constant bright spot for the defense in leading the team in tackles. Some people implied that the Raiders collectively quit as a team last year but Barton was not one of them.

Injuries eventually forced the Raiders to slide starting middle linebacker Napoleon Harris to the strong side, where Romanowski occupied in 2002 and later Smith a year ago. Harris could wind up on the strong side permanently but the Raiders still have a void at middle linebacker.

Special teamers Tim Johnson and Eric Johnson got their chance at linebacker after the rash of injuries.

Looking ahead: Other than the kicking game, this is probably the Raiders strongest position. Harris and Barton should be entering the peak of their career as they are begin their third and sixth years respectively. Barton, however, has elected to file for free agency. Oakland needs to resign him. Pure and simple.

Romanowski has still not officially retired but in all likelihood, he will. Smith might not necessarily be starter's material but in 2002 he had a lot of success as a "rush ‘backer" when the Raiders employed the 3-4 look.

Both Johnsons are clearly better in special teams but had a few good moments in their opportunity at linebacker. Eric Johnson is a free agent the Raiders are assuredly going to make a string effort to keep.

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