Sunday, July 18, 2010

Redskins position preview: Linebackers

Last Tuesday I posted my best guess at the Redskins' final 53 man roster, but without any explanation for my picks.  Instead I'm going through position by position so that I can go into each in sufficient depth.  We started with the defensive line on Thursday, and today we will dive into linebackers.  The good news is this figures to be the last preview in which I whine about how the switch to the 3-4 defense does not maximize the talent of the Redskins front seven, because I know I've already done too much of that this offseason.

Confidence Level: 5.5


We're starting on the outside because I generally feel better about this bunch and I want to delay the angst I will feel while writing about the inside 'backers.

Brian Orakpo is one of the few guys in the front seven for whom the scheme change does not worry me. His role last year as a hybrid DE/LB was really pretty similar to what a 3-4 OLB does, so while assignments will surely differ he has already demonstrated all the necessarys skills. Obviously he came into the league as an immediately effective pass rusher, but he also was pretty good at tracking plays from across the line of scrimmage and pursuing in open space - all very linebacker-ish stuff. His early struggles in coverage were well-documented (and expected) but he seemed to become more comfortable in that role as the season went on - or the coaches did a better job of hiding that deficiency. Bottom line is Orakpo is one player who I am fully confident will excel in a new system by virtue of his absurd physical skills and reputation for having an advanced professional approach to learning the game.

Chris Wilson had a bit of a breakthrough year in 2009. He played almost exactly the same role as Orakpo, filling in when Orakpo needed a break (and sometimes more). He had toiled in obscurity for a few years as a seldom-used pass rush specialist, but surprisingly displayed a very well-rounded skill set. He even made alot of solid plays against the run, which he wasn't supposed to be able to do - at least prior to '09. He is, in my view, Orakpo (b), and so should be another solid bet to contribute despite the defensive switch.

I am a bit more concerned about Andre Carter. He played OLB for one year with the 49ers but didn't take to it well at all, mostly struggling in coverage. Furthermore for whatever reason he has always been much more comfortable rushing the passer from the defensive right side. It appears that Jim Haslett assigns his LBs permanently to the left side or right side, rather than shifting according to where the offense lines up strong or weak. Carter, according to his own reports, is now a left outside linebacker - so he's even further out of his comfort zone. There's no guarantee at all that Carter will be an effective player this year, which would be a shame since he's coming off such a strong '09.

But there are still more converted defensive linemen to discuss, although no longer of the pure pass rush sort:

I have for some time now held up Lorenzo Alexander as an example of a classic unheralded player who constantly contributes on the field. He is no longer so unheralded. One of the first things the new regime did after reviewing the film was to hand Alexander a brand new three year contract and move him into a new but critical position for this new defense. This was a bit of a stunner move for me. I intitally assumed he would sent to ILB to act as a run stuffer, but no, he's on the outside now. Given his relative bulk and experience in the trenches he should be effective as a stack and shed type on running downs, and he showed enough pass rush ability last year (mostly from a pretty good spin move) that he is at least a viable threat. I never would have picked him for this job, but I am confident he will do it well simply because we haven't yet found a job on a football field that Lorenzo Alexander can't do. He's already been an offensive lineman, a defensive end, a defensive tackle, a tight end/6th offensive lineman, and an ace on special teams. If we looked a bit closer it wouldn't shock me to discover that he is also the backup holder, the equipment manager, the captain of the cheerleading squad, the manager of the ticket office, and that he writes the team's offical blog under the pseudonym "Matt Terl." So linebacker? Sure, he can handle linebacker.

Jeremy Jarmon was a pleasant surprise as a rookie who I hope is not victimized by the scheme change. Remember after being taken in the supplemental draft he was expected to pretty much redshirt his rookie year as he built up his strength to NFL standards. But for a guy supposing lacking in upper body strength he sure showed a tendency to overpower alot of guards when he rotated through the DT spot on passing downs. Like Alexander he should be able to hold up okay against blockers and provide some support against the run. In my opinion he really showed alot as a rookie, and it would be a shame if he failed to make the team because of the 3-4.


Unless the defensive line plays much better than expected, inside linebacker could prove to be the weak link of the Redskins defense.

London Fletcher was one of the greats as a middle linebacker, where he was mostly protected from blockers and allowed to maximize his range and instincts. He probably won't be running free nearly as much in a 3-4, and when opposing offense can get a hat on him he can be taken out of plays (that's how Detroit ran down our throats last year). It seems a shame to waste the last years of a great career - although maybe I'm just being too pessimistic. If I were to try to put a brighter face on things, I would say that reducing the amount of the field he is responsible for is a good way to extend his shelf life as his range inevitably declines.

Rocky McIntosh is probably the other starter on the inside, but transitioning from weakside in a 4-3 to inside in a 3-4 just doesn't make sense. The reason Rocky played WLB is because he has the speed to cover space well but can't be expected to overpower blockers. He is now going to be forced to take on guards head-on, and I don't feel good about how that will go.

H.B. Blades has shown enough ability to play in traffic that I am cautiously optimistic that he can play inside despite his small size. He has remarkable instincts against the run, and often seems to know what hole the running back is going through before the running back does and meet him there. He should get significant playing time as the top backup ILB, and I wouln't be shocked to see him push Rocky for a greater share of the snaps.

A 4th round pick was spent on Perry Riley to develop as a run-stuffing ILB, but of course there's no guarantee he will be game-ready from the get-go. Of course an ideal scenario would be for him to show enough as a LB that he can be a reasonable succession plan to the old and out of position guys ahead of him. But simply by virtue of being a rookie there's a good chance he will spend much of the year on special teams or even as a gameday inactive.

And now back to my roster prediction:

Keepers (8)

Outside: Brian Orakpo, Andre Carter, Lorenzo Alexander, Chris Wilson

Inside: London Fletcher, Rocky McIntosh, H.B. Blades, Perry Riley

Cuts: Jeremy Jarmon, Robert Henson, Curtis Gatewood, Chris Draft

I struggled with this one quite a bit, and wouldn't be the least bit surprised if things turn out very different. It was only with great reluctance that I put Jarmon on the cut list - if that happens it will be through know fault of his own; he will purely be a victim of the scheme change. He would certainly catch on with another NFL team.

Orakpo, Wilson, and Alexander are clearly safe on the outside. Some of the worries about Carter have been expressed above... given that simple veteran status probably doesn't get you too far with the new coaching staff, is it possible that Carter could be cut if he is not adjusting well to the new job? That's a bit of a dark horse pick, but there's no reason its impossible.

Henson certainly has a chance to stick on special teams, as does Gatewood, but Chris Draft is pretty old (34) and probably needs injuries ahead of him to make it on the roster.

As a commenter pointed out on my 53-man prediction post, it is not uncommon for 3-4 teams to keep nine or even ten linebackers, so perhaps I'm making the choices harder than they need to be. However, the problem is that I feel good about the health of all eight guys that I have as keepers. In fact, looking over the roster linebacker is perhaps the one position group where depth is not too big of a concern. In order to stock up at some other positions where the backups could well be needed, linebacker seemed like the place to be economical on roster spots.

Check back mid-week for the defensive backs preview.

Click here to see the defensive line preview.


  1. I think Jarmon will make it over Riley if the skins only kept 8 LBs

  2. A 4th round pick would have to really shit the bed to get cut as a rookie.

    Granted Jarmon cost the Redskins a 3rd rounder by being taken in the supplemental the previous year, but that was a pick spent by the old regime and Shanahan won't feel an inherent imperative to get a return on it.

  3. youre an idiot ;)

  4. I see. Well someone had to break the news to me sooner or later. I'm better off for knowing.