Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: inside linebackers.
Returning starters: London Fletcher and Perry Riley
Top reserve: Keenan Robinson
Others: Roddrick Muckelroy, Bryan Kehl, Marvin Burdette, Will Compton and Jeremy Kimbrough
Notable departure: Lorenzo Alexander (free agent, Arizona)
New faces: Burdette (undrafted free agent, Alabama-Birmingham), Compton (undrafted free agent, Nebraska) and Kimbrough (undrafted free agent, Appalachian St.)
Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan has kept four in each of his three seasons in Washington.
What to like: The Redskins are fortunate Fletcher decided to play a 16th NFL season after he had offseason surgeries on his right elbow and left ankle. Only Fletcher knows how seriously he contemplated retirement, but it’s easy to see why the Redskins didn’t ask him to take less than the $5.5 million base salary he’s scheduled to earn in the final year of his contract. He’s invaluable to the defense because he makes calls in the huddle and aligns players before the snap. He’s an emotional leader and sets a good example for young players because of how he prepares physically and mentally. And, of course, he still is playing at a high level. His tackling actually improved last season after he got hurt, and he finished with a team-high five interceptions. He constantly makes plays around the ball. Similarly to how the Redskins’ offense depends on quarterback Robert Griffin III’s health, the defense relies on Fletcher’s.
Riley now has a full season of first-string experience, which should help him recognize and execute his assignments. He’s a sound tackler when he’s going downhill and gets his hands on the ballcarrier. Coaches also used him well rushing the passer, which he can effectively do from the inside or the edge. He must continue to improve in pass coverage, particularly in zone. He is quick and agile enough to man up against a receiver, but recognizing responsibilities in zone is a work in progress. He also can be caught out of position in run defense; again, knowing and executing his assignment is his focus.
Preseason questions: Even if this isn’t Fletcher’s last season, establishing his replacement is an urgent matter because of his importance to the defense as the MIKE inside linebacker. Robinson, a fourth-round pick in 2012, is the leading candidate right now. He projects as an every-down player, Shanahan has said.
Training camp and the four preseason games are particularly important to his development because he missed the final five regular season games and the playoff game with a torn right pectoral muscle. “He’s got speed,” Shanahan said in November. “He’s got quickness, and he’s not afraid to hit, and extremely bright, so that’s a good upside.” Coaches also like his intelligence and his ability in pass coverage. Improving his run defense will be a focus this summer.
If Shanahan sticks to his pattern of keeping four inside linebackers, there’d be only one spot behind Fletcher, Riley and Robinson. Alexander, the special teams ace, filled that role last year. Of all the remaining linebackers on the roster, Kehl fits that mold. He’s not necessarily a Pro Bowl special teamer like Alexander was, but coaches regard him as a special teams leader and quality kick cover guy. His second full offseason in the program should help his recognition and speed on defense.
Muckelroy was on the active roster for the final five games last season, and he replaced Fletcher during spring practices, so he should have an opportunity to play often in the preseason. The three undrafted free agents were good tacklers in college. Much of Washington’s inside linebacker position is mental, so the faster they master the scheme, the faster they’ll play.