Looking back: The Oakland Raiders transformation from the 4-3 to 3-4 front seven had the most profound effect on this position. The 3-4 is a scheme that has proven it can work but the move, in hindsight, was a curious one because the team's linebacking corps was already average at best but got weakened when Eric Barton left via free agency to join the New York Jets.
The move also involved former defensive linemen such as DeLawrence Grant, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Tyler Brayton converting to play linebacker. None had smashing success. For the second consecutive season, Travian Smith had his season slowed by injuries. Smith has missed a combined 14 games the last two seasons.
The Raiders season was highlighted by free agent busts but linebacker Danny Clark (Jacksonville) cannot be lumped into that category. Clark was perhaps Oakland's Most Valuable Defensive Player as he led the team in tackles. The most disturbing trend, however, is that third-year man Napoleon Harris regressed after having a solid first two seasons.
Sam Williams also flashed promise in his second season and showed that he has the raw talent to be a starter but can he stay healthy? Tim Johnson continued to be a decent fill-in but special teams is his meal ticket.
Looking ahead: For starters, the Raiders need to decide what to do with the 3-4 – keep it or bag it. If they keep it, they need to upgrade this position. Much of the blame for the Raiders poor defensive performance is traced to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. There's no doubt that Ryan deserves some of it but an equal part of the problem is that the team does not have enough quality linebackers to make it work.
The 3-4 scheme can work. Just look at the two teams that played in the AFC Championship Game (Pittsburgh and New England). Then again, there's a common denominator – both teams are strong at linebacker. See Tedy Bruschi. See Joey Porter.
Clark is a definite keeper. Harris has the ability to be a top-flight linebacker but can he achieve that performance level? Grant has the potential to be a good player but for the second straight season, he spent the latter part of the season on the inactive list. Gbaja-Biamila has at least shown enough potential that he can be a quality backup. Brayton, meanwhile, is clear a better solution as a defensive end.
If Williams stays healthy, he figures to be a candidate for a starting job along with Smith. Johnson, meanwhile, is a free agent who warrants the Raiders to make an effort to keep. He's a cost effective player whose biggest asset is his special teams play and can fill in for a few downs here and there at linebacker.
Vince D'Adamo can be reached at email@example.com