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Is Raiders' defense improved with rookie Marquel Lee in the middle?

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- What, exactly, are the Oakland Raiders doing on defense?

More specifically, what did they do to improve the league's 26th-ranked unit, a unit that will start rookies at defensive tackle in third-rounder Eddie Vanderdoes and at middle linebacker in fifth-round pick Marquel Lee?

It might turn out that Lee is the most scrutinized Raiders defensive player on the field Sunday in Nashville as Oakland opens its season against the Tennessee Titans -- even with reigning NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack wearing silver and black.

"Yeah, I was waiting for that question," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said with a sly grin this week when asked about Lee. "I figured that would be one that would be a part of this conversation. I can't wait to see our guys play. We'll see. We put a lot of time and effort into developing our guys. That'll remain a story until it's not.

"If he's doing real well, I'm sure you won't ask about it much. We'll just let that unfold. We're looking forward to rolling out our guys ... [and] he's part of it. He's done a good job in his role."

Oakland's defense, though, left much to be desired in the preseason, as the Raiders went 0-4 for only the third time in franchise history. Much of the blame fell at the feet of the defense.

Still, much of that is hard to put on Lee, who is, after all, a fifth-round rookie.

"Of course, I would love to get that starting position, but I'm here to compete," Lee said at the start of training camp. "I'm here to earn the spot ... come in, compete, make myself better and make the team better.

"I felt energized and felt good coming into this situation and organization. Watching the playoffs last year made me excited about this year and what's to come."

He beat out Tyrell Adams early in camp and has not looked back since, nor have the Raiders added any experience at the position.

Consider: Lee and Adams have a combined zero defensive snaps in the NFL. None.

Lee looked overmatched and a step behind at times in exhibitions. At others, his instincts kicked in and he was in the right place at the right time, like when he recovered a fumble at Arizona.

The Raiders' initial 53-man roster had only six linebackers on it, with Lee the youngest at 21. The oldest, 29-year-old strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin, had some advice for his young charge.

"The biggest thing is you've got to be confident," Irvin said. "Marquel is the Mike, so he's basically the D.C. of the defense. He has the mic -- he calls the plays -- so as a younger guy being in charge of the defense, you have to be confident. If you make a call, you go with the call, you can't be out there confused. ... If you make a call, we play the call.

"Big, strong, fast guy. Like I said, he just has to be confident, man."

And if Lee makes a mistake?

"You've got to have short-term memory," Irvin said. "You've got to move on because we need Marquel. ... I'm confident in our younger guys. I know what Khalil's going to do."

But it's not just about Lee. It's about seeing if the Raiders, who had a league-low 25 sacks last season, can improve their interior pass-rush.

It's about seeing if they can better cover tight ends coming across the middle.

It's about seeing if the secondary has a lockdown cornerback in first-rounder Gareon Conley, who missed all of camp with a right shin injury and just started practicing last week.

Truly, it's about seeing if Oakland got Mack some help, and not relying on that old joke that the best linebackers in the building are general manager Reggie McKenzie, Del Rio, defensive coordinator Ken Norton and broadcaster Matt Millen, who said Oakland needed to bring in a veteran middle linebacker during the exhibition at Dallas.

"I'm more confident than a lot of other people," Del Rio said. "But again, you get a chance to prove it. I think talk is cheap. There's no sense in really trying to proclaim anything.

"I think we put in a lot of good, hard work. We have a good group of guys that are really looking forward to the challenges that are in front of us. That's what it's all about, preparing and then going out and competing. I like where we are that way."