Raiders confident Ben Heeney can fill hole in middle of D
NAPA, Calif. (AP) When the Oakland Raiders set out this offseason to upgrade their defense, general manager Reggie McKenzie systematically targeted every apparent need except for one.
McKenzie rebuilt his secondary, added a pass rusher in Bruce Irvin and fortified the defensive line by using a second-round pick on Jihad Ward but was content to stand pat at middle linebacker to give second-year player Ben Heeney a chance to win the job.
''It definitely lets you know they have confidence in you,'' Heeney said. ''It makes you feel good but that doesn't mean anything. It's just what you do on the field every day.''
Heeney had been groomed to be Oakland's middle linebacker after being drafted in the fifth round out of Kansas in 2015. He had played more on the outside in college but the Raiders liked him in the middle, where he backed up veteran Curtis Lofton for most of last season.
Heeney played about one-quarter of the defensive snaps last season but got more time as the year went on and he gained the confidence of his coaches.
Now as the starter this year, Heeney has been given the green-dot helmet, which will allow him to get the plays directly into his headset from coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
''He's smart, he's fast, and he's relentless,'' Norton said. ''He has a nose for the ball, very instinctive. Ben is going to be a very good football player. He cares a lot, he's always getting better. You can't get him out of the film room, asking all the right questions, and we have a lot of confidence in him.''
Heeney had been the defensive signal caller in college so the role is not new for him and he says it involves little more than hearing the play from Norton and relaying it to his teammates.
Having teammates like All Pro Khalil Mack, Irvin, Dan Williams, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson gives Heeney the confidence that he can perform this season.
''We have playmakers all over the field,'' he said. ''It's definitely fun to be able to give the plays to those guys and see what they can do with it.''
The Raiders felt little need to upgrade at middle linebacker after letting Lofton go, believing Heeney could fill that role this season.
While he is not the prototypical thumper in the middle who can stuff the run, the 226-pound Heeney brings much more speed and agility to the field than Lofton and will be last apt to get exploited in coverage or in space.
''Ben Heeney is a dog,'' Irvin said. ''He's not the biggest guy, but he plays bigger than what he is. The guy leaves it out there for me. It's just practice, so I can only image what he does for me in a game. He's a team guy. That's the biggest thing, having a bunch of team guys who are willing to leave it out there for each other. I can already tell Ben is one of those guys.''
Heeney finished his rookie season with 27 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks but expects big improvements with more playing time and the comfort level that comes from a year in the NFL and the familiarity with the defensive system.
''You definitely want the game to slow down as far as seeing your reads,'' he said. ''But I like to play fast. I always like to play fast, go get the ball and make plays. There's a lot of times where I was overaggressive last year. That's something that hurt me in college. That's one of the knocks I had.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL