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Ben Heeney is the man in the middle for Raiders’ defense

Ben Heeney sits atop the Raiders’ depth chart at middle linebacker after manning the position late last season.
Ben Heeney sits atop the Raiders’ depth chart at middle linebacker after manning the position late last season. The Associated Press

A year ago, on the eve of the Raiders’ preseason opener, nobody around here knew much about linebacker Ben Heeney.

He was a fifth-round draft pick out of Kansas and an All-Big 12 Conference first-team selection. But wide receiver Amari Cooper attracted most of the attention on draft day, and most of what was left went to defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tight end Clive Walford.

Heeney? Oh, yeah. He was the guy from the team that went a nondescript 3-9 in his senior year.

Now he’s on the top of the Raiders’ depth chart at middle linebacker, and you can expect him to play maybe a quarter or so when Oakland opens the preseason Friday on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. The job is to stop the run, defend the pass and relay the defensive signals from the coaching staff to a unit that includes All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack and two talented newcomers, linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith.

Last year, me and Curtis (Lofton) were competing, and he would help me every day with different things, so I’m trying to learn from him and doing the same thing. So if a younger guy – Cory James right now is my backup – if he asks questions, I’m happy to answer those, and we all help each other out.

Raiders linebacker Ben Heeney

“It’s amazing, being in the middle, just having different pieces all around me,” Heeney said after practice Tuesday. “It definitely gives me confidence and makes me feel like I can play fast.”

If he was something of an unknown at this time last year, the fast, smallish linebacker from the heart of the heartland gained some recognition among Raiders fans during the 2015 preseason, when he led the team in tackles in three of their four games.

Taylor Heinicke, a backup quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, surely remembers him. On a delayed blitz during a preseason game in the upper Midwest, Heeney left Heinicke and the football splattered on the turf. Replays show it took much longer for wounded Heinicke to recover than it did for the football to be recovered by Heeney’s teammates.

Heeney’s destruction of Heinicke was soon forgotten during the reality of the regular season. Money dictated the Raiders award the starting middle linebacker position to Curtis Lofton, who before the season signed a three-year, $18 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. But Lofton’s production fell nearly 50 percent from his previous seven-year average of 126 tackles.

For the first nine games, the 6-foot, 230-pound Heeney was confined mostly to the bench. In the 10th, the Raiders used Heeney against the Detroit Lions, and he came through with seven tackles, including a sack, and he broke up one pass, which equaled Lofton’s total the previous two years.

Two weeks later, Heeney started against the Kansas City Chiefs, and the job mostly was his during December. In the offseason, the Raiders cut Lofton, but please save your tears for others. Lofton, who remains unsigned and reportedly has taken a TV gig with the New Orleans Saints, will collect $3.5 million from the Raiders this season.

After Lofton’s departure, some draft experts predicted the Raiders would choose a linebacker such as Alabama’s Reggie Ragland with their first pick. Instead, the Raiders drafted free safety Karl Joseph and opted not to sign a free agent, handing Heeney his first big professional opportunity.

It’s amazing, being in the middle, just having different pieces all around me. It definitely gives me confidence and makes me feel like I can play fast.

Raiders linebacker Ben Heeney

The Raiders’ decisions were a vote of confidence in Heeney, and the team firmed it up with this week’s announcement on the depth chart. It lists Heeney as the starter, backed up by rookies Cory James, a sixth-round pick from Colorado State, and John Lotulelei, a free agent from UNLV. Neither appears to be a slouch. In practice Tuesday, James intercepted a pass and Lotulelei dropped deep into coverage to break one up.

Lofton’s gone, but Heeney can’t find anything in his contract that ensures playing time. He knows he’s going to have to fight off the younger guys. But just as Lofton helped him last year, Heeney is showing James and Lotulelei how to do things right in Raider World.

“It’s been that way since I’ve been here,” Heeney said. “Last year, me and Curtis were competing, and he would help me every day with different things, so I’m trying to learn from him and doing the same thing. So if a younger guy – Cory James right now is my backup – if he asks questions, I’m happy to answer those, and we all help each other out.”

In a world with few guarantees, Heeney has worked hard enough and shown he is fast enough and tough enough, strong enough and smart enough, to have earned a very thin one. This week, he is at the top of the depth chart. But there are challengers, just like he was last year, a little-known rookie out of Kansas, hungry to devour somebody’s job, and soon enough getting his bite.

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