Quick, who was the last Raiders middle linebacker (in a 4-3 defensive alignment) or inside linebacker (in a 3-4) to make the Pro Bowl?
I will help you stall a little bit by reminding you that this is one of the NFL’s storied franchises, a team that has appeared in five Super Bowls and won three of them. You want wide receivers? By the time you get past Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch and Tim Brown, you’re lobbying for multi-receiver sets. You want cornerbacks? Skip Thomas and Nnamdi Asomugha wouldn’t even get a chance to play the nickel on an all-time Raiders defense.
But inside linebackers? They have been a strange and glaring rarity in Raiders lore. The last one to make the Pro Bowl was Matt Millen, in 1988. He got there one time. The only other inside ’backers so honored, Dan Conners (1966-68) and Archie Matsos (1963), both played in the AFL All-Star Game rather than the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, evidence that we’re talking about a completely different era. Since Millen, the middle of the Raiders defense has been occupied by the game but limited (Kirk Morrison) and the bizarre (Rolando McClain), but mostly by a parade of middling and forgettable performers like Riki Ellison, Joe Kelly, Napoleon Harris, Miles Burris and Malcolm Smith.
Can young Marquel Lee pull the lever that stops the revolving door?
Raiders fans so desperately want him to. As they watched the NFL draft unfold a week ago, many of them were convinced their team would snag a linebacker in the first round, perhaps someone like Alabama’s Reuben Foster or Florida’s Jarrad Davis. It didn’t happen. Rounds 2 and 3 came and went on Day Two, and still Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie had not sprung for a second-level run-stopper.
Twitter became apoplectic. Didn’t McKenzie know the Raiders ranked 23rd in the NFL last year in rushing defense at 117.6 yards per game, and tied for 25th in both yards per carry (4.5) and rushing touchdowns (18) allowed? Did he not watch the Buffalo game? Wasn’t McKenzie himself a Raiders inside linebacker back in the day? Did that mean nothing?
Reggie, what the hell is going on?!
Finally, in Round 5, McKenzie made his move. With the 168th overall pick, the Raiders selected Lee, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound thumper from Wake Forest. Scouts questioned his speed and instincts, but the citizens of Raider Nation were having none of it. They had found their man. Like, on social media, they had found him.
“Yeah, I’ve got over 100 or so DMs, comments and stuff,” Lee said with a laugh Friday.
What were folks saying to him?
“We need a linebacker, congrats. We need a linebacker. Looking for you to plug in this year,” Lee revealed. “Things like that.”
Oh, that’s all. Walk in the door at the age of 21 and make the Raiders into sturdy run defenders. Lee was speaking outdoors at Raiders headquarters, at the makeshift podium the team frequently sets up outside the locker room. The occasion was Oakland’s 2017 rookie mini-camp. For most, it was an introduction to the team, and the NFL.
Dozens of players took the field hoping to make an impression on coaches, schematics from new playbooks flashing through their heads in hazy montages. Some had been drafted, others signed as “priority free agents.” Many were there simply for tryouts; their names weren’t even listed on the rosters handed out to reporters. They are likely to leave as anonymously as they arrived.