ALAMEDA (AP) — Even though the Oakland Raiders still have a slim chance at the final wild-card spot in the AFC, coach Jack Del Rio is approaching the final month of the season with an eye toward the future.
Del Rio said he plans to use the final five games to evaluate some younger players, such as rookie linebacker Ben Heeney, who made his first career start last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
One of two fifth-round draft picks by Oakland this season, Heeney has gone from getting reps on the scout team to playing on special teams.
“Ben is full of energy,” Del Rio said. “He really flies around, shows up around the ball a lot. He’s done well with the opportunity he’s had.”
Heeney was buried on the depth chart coming out of training camp and spent most of his time early in the season on the Raiders’ coverage units while playing on the goal-line defense.
With middle linebacker Curtis Lofton struggling in pass coverage, Oakland needed to make a change. Rookie Neiron Ball had the job until he was sidelined by a knee injury. Heeney stepped in and hasn’t looked back.
A first-team All-Big-12 linebacker during his senior year at Kansas, Heeney made a career-high nine tackles and recorded his first sack against Detroit in Week 11. He and Khalil Mack teamed up to sack Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith in the second quarter.
“We’ve called on him to play more and he’s done well with that opportunity,” Del Rio said. “It’s kind of like Neiron. He got the first crack at it and did a nice job, but then got injured. Eventually we turned to Ben and he’s done a nice job with the opportunity.
“Once it gets to this point in the season, you’re trying hard to develop the young guys. But a lot of times it comes on scout team. When you do enough there to give you an opportunity, we’ll move you in to defense work.”
While some players dislike working on the scout team, Heeney saw it as a stepping stone. He took the same approach on special teams and now he’s Oakland’s starting middle linebacker in the nickel packages.
“I just try to play as hard as I can and just play fast,” Heeney said. “I wasn’t doing anything different than what I have been doing. I think they just noticed it a little bit more.”
Heeney is aware of the importance of the final month of the season. Even if they miss the playoffs, the Raiders can still finish with a winning record for the first time since 2002. A strong finish from Heeney would also help cement his status on Oakland’s defense, which has had sporadic production from the linebackers most of the year.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the last game that I have to improve on,” Heeney said. “I’ve got a lot to learn still. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to make this team better.”
Notes: Center Rodney Hudson (ankle) made it through a second practice without restriction Friday and is likely to start in Denver. Hudson is listed as probable. . WR Amari Cooper (foot), defensive end Khalil Mack (knee) and safety Charles Woodson (shoulder) are all probable. . Safety Nate Allen (knee) did not practice and is out. . RB Taiwan Jones (knee) and DT Shelby Harris (ankle) were limited in practice and are questionable.