Raiders linebacker Aaron Curry has now practiced for most of the week, the first time he's been able to do that for months. When he was injured he was coming off a promising season as the Raiders weak side linebacker and was looking to build off his first partial season in Silver & Black.
Now, it's mid October and Curry is desperately trying to get into football shape and find where he fits on this team. His former starting position has been taken by rookie Miles Burris who has consistently stepped up his game week in and week out and has earned increased playing time, accordingly.
It seems unlikely that head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will take Burris off the field to get Curry onto it at this point. Burris is the future of the team and is playing well, now, as well.
On the strong side, free agent standout Philip Wheeler is proving to be GM Reggie McKenzie's best aquisition of the off-season. Curry certainly won't be starting in Wheeler's place.
This leaves, of course, middle linebacker. Former top ten pick Rolando McClain has drawn the ire of fans and the criticism of coaches for his conditioning and lack of hustle on the field. While McClain has shown he can do well against the run and can has also shown skills at blitzing the QB McClain is nothing but a liability in pass coverage.
Readers of TFDS know that I had advocated for McClain to be benched in favor of Travis Goethel or, when he returned, Aaron Curry. However, with Allen and Tarver's decision to instead sit the MLB for the nickel package that sort of drastic move may no longer be necessary. In fact, it may not be desirable.
While it would feel somewhat satisfying for the many exasperated fans to see McClain benched for Curry, this may not be in the best interest of the team.
McClain, for all his faults, is at least decent at run defense – he assisted on a goal line stand versus Atlanta last Sunday for example.
By taking McClain out of the nickel package they are allowing him to focus himself for the plays in the base package and the hope is that he will not only be playing to his strength – run defense – but also will have more energy and focus on the snaps in which he plays.
Curry may or may not improve the middle linebacker position. If he did replace McClain would he also then come off in the nickel package? He has struggled in pass protection himself, after all. It would seem a poor decision to put him in at middle linebacker and then have Burris come off on passing downs and leave Curry out there.
During his time on the PUP list, Curry focused on learning all three linebacker positions. This is how he will be most useful – as a backup to many positions.
I believe it is in the Raiders best interest to keep the defense as it is, at least for now. Burris and Wheeler at weak and strong linebacker, respectively, and the two linebackers that will stay out on the field in the nickel position as they did last week against Atlanta.
McClain is a good fit as a base package MLB – someone who can be a physical presence in the middle to stop running backs from getting to far on interior runs.
Curry can then be the jack of all trades at linebacker – he can substitute at positions of need and be available if injury necessitates it.
It's not the role he thought he'd be coming back to but it's not a bad role and the Raiders will able to use him plenty. And who knows? If teams start to exploit McClain again as the weakest link on the defensive side perhaps Curry will get his day back in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.