Linebacking job there for the taking

Eric Barton has the inside track to be the Raiders starting weakside linebacker for next season but the job is anything but locked up. Barton first has to prove he can handle being an every-down player in the NFL, something he appeared ready for after a stellar rookie stellar season three years ago before falling down the team's depth chart.

A fifth-round draft pick of Oakland's in 1999, Barton became the front-runner for the weakside linebacking job when Willie Thomas announced his retirement following the Raiders' playoff loss to New England in January. Barton took all of the snaps with the starting defense during the team's recent mini-camp in April and grabbed the attention of head coach Bill Callahan.

''Eric and Travian (Smith) really had outstanding camps,'' said Callahan. ''I thought our whole linebackers as a whole really did an outstanding job. I feel really good about how we've upgraded our linebacking position.''

 Before Barton can claim the job for his own, though, he'll have to beat out Smith and Gerald Dixon, whom the Raiders signed as a free agent earlier this year. Barton started the final three games of the '99 season and was Oakland's leading tackler in two of those three games. But he couldn't beat out Thomas the following year and has played primarily on special teams ever since.

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