The Oakland Raiders have been trying to rebuild their linebacker group for a few years now. While they drafted a middle linebacker in Rolando McClain, they have taken a different approach to their outside linebackers. Rather than investing draft picks in outside backers, the Raiders have taken to becoming a home of second chances for backers who had not lived up to their potential on other teams. When those teams were ready to throw them on the scrap pile, the Raiders picked them up and allowed them to play to their strengths, and did so with a good amount of success.
It started with Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley was a top 15 pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2006, but he never lived up to the billing and was traded to the Raiders for a third round pick in 2010. The Raiders let Wimbley focus on rushing the passer and he had a break out season racking up 9 sacks and a forced fumble. He continued to play well his second season with the Raiders, compiling 7 sacks and an interception. Unfortunately, his success went to his head a bit and he refused to restructure his contract and wound up being cut by the Raiders.
Then, in 2011, the Raiders traded for another first round flop in Aaron Curry, sending a seventh round pick to the Seattle Seahawks. Despite spending almost no time learning the Raiders defense, Curry started right away and looked like a new player. While he did not have a great season, he was a good player for the Raiders and worth much more than a seventh round pick. Curry attributed his new found success to the fact that the Raiders allowed him to play to his instincts rather than being held down by a complicated defensive scheme as he was in Seattle.
Now, it looks like the Raiders are ready to set another linebacker free, this time though, he was not as highly touted and is looking for an opportunity to exceed expectations, rather than live up to them. Philip Wheeler was a third round pick for the Indianapolis Colts, but feels as though he was unable to live up to his potential because he played in a defensive scheme that limited his opportunities. The Colts played exclusively in a cover 2 defense because it was what complimented Peyton Manning the best. That meant little to no blitzing for Wheeler, who was not able to show off his speed and explosiveness with the Colts. With the Raiders, Wheeler will be asked to do a lot more than he did in Indianapolis and Wheeler is excited for the opportunity.
The linebacker corps in Oakland could be pretty exciting to watch this season. If Curry can continue to improve and if Wheeler can excel in a new scheme, the Raiders may have completely turned around a unit that just two years ago looked all but hopeless.