No other position is more in flux for the Washington Redskins than strongside linebacker.
The Redskins released five-year starter Marcus Washington on Feb. 20 because of his high salary and a series of injuries, leaving the club searching for a replacement.
They could draft Texas’ Brian Orakpo or Southern Cal’s Rey Maualuga or Brian Cushing later this month.
The club also has options on the roster. The Redskins could decide that H.B. Blades, who started five games last season in Washington’s place, is ready for full-time duty. Or they could push reserve Chris Wilson to make the switch from pass-rushing end to starting linebacker, a position he’s never played.
Or the Redskins could do as the St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders did before them: Start Robert Thomas.
The 28-year-old, cut by the Raiders off injured reserve in December, signed with the Redskins as a free agent April 8.
“I started 10 games the year before, but I had some bumps and bruises that set me back last year,” said Thomas, who didn’t play in the first six weeks because of a dislocated kneecap, re-signed with the team in October and suffered a season-ending hamstring pull in his second game back. “That’s why I’m in the position I’m now. This year is an important year for me to get back on track, get my name back on the radar.”
Thomas planned visits with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans after his first free agent visit with Washington, but he scrubbed those trips and signed with the Redskins.
“I knew the opportunity I had here surrounded by a great group of athletes,” Thomas said. “You’re as good as your surroundings.”
Hall, who disliked the surroundings in Oakland during his half-season with the Raiders last year, helped persuade Thomas to sign with the Redskins.
Hall told him “it was nothing like Oakland and that I would be happy here,” Thomas said.
“Robert’s not just a run-and-hit guy,” Hall said. “He’s a very smart player. And he’s a great guy and a great teammate. He can definitely be a starter.”
Trouble is that while Thomas made some of his 50 NFL starts on the strong side and in the middle, his best position is the weak side. The Redskins are set there with fourth-year man Rocky McIntosh and in the middle with Fletcher.
“I can play all three positions, but I feel the most comfortable at the weak side,” Thomas said. “It allows me to run around and do what I can do best. I have a knack for the ball. I can cover out of the backfield.”
But the Redskins are Thomas’ fourth team in five years - a disappointment for a player who was drafted in the first round, was named an All-American in his senior year at UCLA and was the consensus top high school linebacker in the nation in 1997.
“It hasn’t gone as well as I thought it would, but I’m still here,” said Thomas, whose brother Stan lasted just five years after the Chicago Bears drafted him as an offensive tackle in the first round in 1991. “I know I have a lot of football left. Being [out most of last] year it allowed me to realize how special football and how once-in-a-lifetime this opportunity is. I’m thankful for the opportunity to compete for a starting job.”
Thomas said changing teams is like being the new kid in school, but he doesn’t expect to struggle to learn the scheme of Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache.
“I’m a student of the game,” Thomas said. “I want to coach when I’m done playing. I study and I study and I study. I learned offensive concepts from watching my brother watch film. That has helped me as a defensive player. I love understanding a defense - not just what I’m doing, but everybody around me.”