- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2021

To give an example of the way Washington’s revamped front office was clicking, coach Ron Rivera said the group was discussing a linebacker available in the draft when one of the members of the staff brought up the prospect’s strengths. Then, another member of the front office relayed that player’s weakness and cautioned they needed to be aware of it. 

Rivera then re-watched the linebacker’s tape with the feedback in mind.

“All of a sudden low and behold there is exactly what they’re talking about,” Rivera said. “So, I sit back, and I go: ‘Wow. OK. I would’ve looked right past that without thinking about it.’”

That type of interaction likely happens in every front office across the NFL. But in Rivera’s example, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the coach mentioned they were studying linebackers ahead of this month’s draft.

Despite an aggressive approach to free agency, linebacker remains one of the team’s biggest holes on the roster. Rivera openly wondered last week if Washington had enough depth at the position — and he’s been critical of the spot in the past, as well. 

Luckily for Washington, this draft appears to have strong upside at linebacker — particularly in the first round when three players at the position are projected to be selected in the round.

Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, in particular, has been commonly linked to Washington at No. 19 in mock drafts. And Washington was among the group of teams in attendance at the All-American’s Pro Day last week.  

Owusu-Koramoah, a native of Hampton, Virginia, holds all the attributes of a modern linebacker: He plays multiple spots, can cover the pass and has explosive athleticism that pops on tape. The Athletic ranks him as the draft’s second-best player at the position and 15th overall best player available. 

Some might say he’s undersized at 6-foot-1, but smaller, rangier linebackers have become a trend in the NFL

“When I step on the field my attitude kind of differs from others,” Owusu-Koramoah told reporters last week. “Just willing to attack, willing to be physical, take chances, willing to make plays, a fierce competitor coming from my foundation and where I’m from. … I run fast, I’m physical, and I’m quick reacting — but not too quick that I can’t be patient and wait for a play to develop in front of my eyes.”

In 2020, Washington relied on a rotating cast of linebackers but faced scrutiny over inconsistent play. Rivera, a former linebacker himself, said the group was too hesitant and needed to play with a better sense of urgency. Rivera noted the core got better as the year progressed, but Washington arguably lacks a true three-down linebacker on the roster. 

With linebackers specifically, Rivera seems to value players who can hold up in coverage. In Carolina, the Panthers’ defense thrived on All-Pro Luke Kuechly’s extended range and burst.  “He’s perfect for today’s game,” Rivera once said. 

Owusu-Koramoah isn’t seen as a sure-fire prospect. There are some scouts who worry about the Notre Dame product’s pursuit angles, for instance. But his range is one of the best aspects of his game. According to Pro Football Focus, Owusu-Koramoah lined up in the box on 433 snaps — and played as a slot corner for 680 snaps.   

“Duality is what NFL teams are looking for as it progresses more to a pass league,” he said. 

There’s no guarantee that Owusu-Koramoah is Washington’s top-rated linebacker, either. Penn State’s Micah Parsons wowed evaluators last week with a 4.36 40-yard dash at his Pro Day — and it would be considered a steal if Parsons (6-foot-3, 246 pounds) was available at No. 19. 

Washington is also reportedly high on Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, a late-bloomer rocketing up draft boards. ESPN’s Mel Kiper now has Davis ranked 14th in his latest big board after previously going unranked. The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah compared him to All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. “You can’t hide how athletic that kid is,” Jeremiah said on a conference call. 

Other potential first-round fits for Washington at the position include Tulsa’s Zaven Collins (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) and Missouri’s Nick Bolton (5-foot-11, 237 pounds). 

Washington could always wait until later in the draft to address the position. The team holds two picks in the third round and has had some success with later-round picks at the position. Cole Holcomb, a fifth-rounder from 2019, started 10 of his 11 games last year, and 2020 fifth-rounder Khaleke Hudson flashed late. 

But if Washington is looking for a potential star, Owusu-Koramoah might make the most sense — granted he’s available. Outside of his physical tools, the Virginia native also seems to be the type of leader Rivera values.

During media availability for his Pro Day, Owusu-Kormaoah said he makes sure to ask every team what their culture is like. That surely is a positive in Rivera’s book.

“I think that was a beautiful question because if you ask somebody what do you mean by culture, it has to allow them to dig deeper to find something outside the football realm, but also include football,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I want to be able to mold myself and kind of cultivate myself to match what that team is looking for. 

“With anything that is positive, I want to be able to adapt, be relatable to others and give that team what that team ultimately needs.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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