Ben Heeney: Oakland Raiders Unknown Defensive X-Factor

The release of veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton wasn’t earth shattering. The subsequent lack of free agency additions or draft selections to fill the newly opened vacancy didn’t make headlines either. And rightfully so, considering that the off-season moves that the Oakland Raiders made were equally as impressive to both fans and media alike.  Instead, the inside of Oakland’s linebacker core is the stage for second-year player and 2015 fifth-round draft pick Ben Heeney. Heeney might just have the most interesting, yet integral role on this season’s defense.

Oakland Raiders Unknown Defensive X-Factor

If Oakland’s decision to improve each aspect of the defense except for the middle linebacker position this off-season was a presumptive vote of confidence in Heeney, then Ken Norton Jr.’s presenting him the position of defensive signal caller at the start of training camp is certainly a tangible one. Though he has occupied the green dot helmet during his collegiate career at Kansas and he plays the natural positional choice for the duty, Norton’s selection of Heeney is significant given that Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin, the two linebackers starting beside him, both began their careers playing under the Raiders’ defensive coordinator in Seattle.

Transitioning to Starter

In reality, Smith and Irvin’s presence could make Heeney’s transition into the role of starter and signal caller a more fluid one. This will be crucial with plenty of outside noise placing expectations on this team to reach the playoffs. And the thing about expectations is oftentimes their weight isn’t distributed evenly among individuals. Unfortunately for Heeney, he’s tasked with carrying a heavier burden of pressure than many of his teammates.

Now here is where some clarification may be needed; by no means is the second-year linebacker the flag bearer of responsibility to triumphantly guide this Raider team into the playoffs for the first time in over decade. That responsibility lies squarely on the likes of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack. But rather, Heeney must battle the pressures of the opportunity arising in front of him to become the x-factor of the defense.

Fixing a Weakness

Though it would be up for debate, one could fairly say that the middle linebacker is the biggest weakness on the Raider defense entering 2016. This gives Heeney the  chance to make an impact. His ability to perform up to at least an average level in the heart of the Oakland defense could be the difference between the team ending their playoff drought or not.

The additions of Irvin on the edge and Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith in the secondary have Oakland and its fans expecting a defense that can compete with the top offenses in the league, and a player like Heeney adequately filling his role is what any defense in the NFL needs in order to do that. Though he only saw limited action during his rookie campaign; he showed enough flashes to do exactly what Norton and the defense need from him. However, Heeney could also find out how quickly the opportunity can be flipped on its head.

For a player who was graded as below-average while only playing in about a quarter of the team’s defensive snaps in 2015; this opportunity isn’t necessarily a common one. Add in the fact that Heeney was a mere fifth round pick. He will be the least experienced player on the defense except for projected starting rookies Karl Joseph and Jihad Ward. This is significant because as the fifth-round pick that worked his way into a starting role, he doesn’t get to hold the same role as Joseph and Ward as the project players for the future. Fans and team management won’t be able to overlook his mistakes this season. Not in the same way as they will do for their two rookie starters who were first and second-round picks respectively.

His Role Now and In The Future

For all these reasons, it’s not just the 2016 season weighing down on Heeney; it’s his future with the silver and black and his entire football career as well. Unless the Raiders end the year crowned Super Bowl champions in February, expect management to upgrade on their weaknesses. They will look to take Oakland from playoff contender, to championship contender. Heeney has the chance to show he can be a part of the future of the team; or his position will just become another hole to fill in next year’s off-season.

It’d be hard to believe even Heeney would have this new role and opportunity in his second year. It won’t be one he will have twice. The stage is set for Heeney to become the middle linebacker of the future for the Raiders; and to be the defensive x-factor. He can push them over the cusp and into the postseason. Or the stage could be set for him to succumb to the pressures and challenges he faces; to become a defensive liability. Now it’s time to just sit back and see which performance he gives.