The Raiders added two linebackers this offseason with Super Bowl rings, and a former linebacker turned coach with seven. But one of the more intriguing of the group is a returning player with nowhere to go but up.
Head coach Jack Del Rio said:
“(He’s) Very athletic. He’s really bought in to the idea of maturing and being more disciplined in his play. I think that if you bring some of the playmaking and some of the natural athletic ability that we like, some of the aggressiveness that we like.”
Armstrong has a knack for persevering out of training camp.
An undrafted rookie, Armstrong signed with the Rams in 2013 and made the final roster despite a glut of defensive talent. He appeared in all 16 games that season, making a name for himself on special teams. His 12 special teams stops led the team, and the Rams kept him around for another year. But that ended in October of 2014.
Armstrong became a casualty of limited roster spots, though it didn’t take Oakland long to snatch him off waivers — the Raiders zero wins at the time had them atop the order.
He accumulated 20 tackles in 2014, 18 coming in Silver and Black, including a forced fumble in the Raiders’ final game of the season.
At least a few Raiders employees who have no say in whether he does make the final cut believe Armstrong has a fighting chance, and it’s easy to see why.
But the final decision could come down to one or two small details, says Del Rio:
“We’re just wanting to make sure that the maturity is there and the responsibleness is there, the accountability is there. I think he’s made great strides over this offseason in developing himself along those lines. That’s going to be important for us and important for him.”
The competition for Armstrong includes rookie linebackers Neiron Ball and Ben Heeney, who were both drafted on day three this year.
Ball has had multiple surgeries since high school, including brain surgery in 2011, and has a medical history of someone that doesn’t usually have staying power in the NFL.
The Raiders clearly see things differently.
Heeney figures to do what Armstrong has been doing, making special teams stops and grinding it out en route to the final roster.
Both rookies will duke it out with Armstrong on special teams, with preseason play the likely dictator of who, if any, gets the axe.
It’s not too unlikely that all three make it, but with Malcolm Smith currently projecting as a reserve linebacker, it’s going to be a decision unless someone gets injured.
Another moving part is linebacker Khalil Mack.
Mack has been practicing with the defensive line during organized team activities, though it’s unclear if that is just an experiment of sorts, or if that will continue.
It will work in favor of Armstrong, as well as Ball and Heeney, if Mack continues working out at defensive end.
Mack put on lean mass this offseason and now weighs 265; his 2014 playing weight was 250. Del Rio confirmed it was muscle, not fat, and the coach said he felt good about where Mack was in his conditioning.
If Mack does continue at defensive end, Armstrong becomes the dark horse to fill in as a starter should another linebacker go down.
Armstrong got the bulk of his playing time last season after linebacker Sio Moore was placed on injured reserve and missed the final two games of the season. The Raiders aren’t hoping for injury, but if it does happen, they may have their quality fill=in with Armstrong.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.