Through July, I will be running positional breakdowns for the Washington Redskins. Each assessment will be broken down into four areas: Past Statistics, Experience/Potential, Positional Competition, and Intangibles.
We’re now approaching the end of the month and we still have three previews left. I’m going to try and fit these in by Saturday, but as my best friend is getting married (congrats Jason!), that might not be a reality. Nonetheless, Saturday = August, so sorry special teams. Anyway today’s endeavor is the linebacking corps for 2009. For the sake of ease, I’m considering Brian Orakpo in this group as well (although it may not matter sans contract at this point). The linebackers were a bit of a mixed bag in 2008, and 2009 will be about getting younger, and hopefully a little more durable. Here we go.
The easy part to point out about this group is the continued effectiveness (and Pro Bowl snubs) of middle linebacker London Fletcher. Fletch remained toward the top of the NFL heap in tackles with 133 and 96 solo, good for sixth overall. Steady man Rocky McIntosh came in second on the team and 44th overall with 87 total tackles and 60 solo. Only three or four of tandems fared better over the course of the season than those two in terms of tackles and effectiveness stopping the run. H.B. Blades, the starter opposite McIntosh finished third on the team with 60 tackles. Fan favorite and supposed “pass rushing specialist” Marcus Washington only hauled in 44, despite starting nine games. No other linebacker really contributed significantly besides that foursome. The biggest problem here is playmaking ability. Fletcher is a rock in the middle and McIntosh is still improving, only entering his fourth year, but the group as a whole only two sacks (both McIntosh), six forced fumbles, and only one interception. While the Redskins had a solid defense in the middle last year, they were often caught on the field too long, and a big result of this was a lack of game-changing plays from the linebackers, this must improve in order to help the defense maintain a high level of effectiveness through this entire season. Brian Orakpo SHOULD help the fumbles and sacks, but someone needs to step up on pass defense.
There is no questioning London Fletcher’s experience. The man has started every single game since the 2001 regular season. That’s hard to beat. He’s 34, and not really slowing down. I believe the Skins have at least two more years to develop someone behind him, and even then, he may not lose his starting spot without a fight. McIntosh has shown great flashes at times, and seems to be non-discriminate for a linebacker out of ‘the U,’ but his play is growing much more consistent and he’s quietly one of the best players on the defense. He’s only 26, and could potentially remain slotted here for many years to come. It would be nice to see some more big plays out of him, but consistency against the run is a great start. We’ve already touched on Orakpo’s potential, and HB Blades will probably be bumped back into a reserve role this season, but he’s a quality player. I wouldn’t be surprised to be that guy to continue learning under Fletcher until he decides to retire. Robert Henson has the size to be a strong contributor down the road, but he’ll probably spend a lot of time on special teams for now. Guys like Robert Thomas and Khary Campbell can do a good job filling in for brief periods if they’re called upon, but it’s imperative that the Redskins develop their young talent. Thomas was a nice addition this offseason to positional depth, considering that he carries 50 career starts and has played all three ‘backer positions.
It will be interesting to see who earns roster spots, especially with Orakpo’s holdout. Every day he sits, another player has an opportunity to show why they deserve a roster spot. The biggest competition will obviously be a strong-side linebacker where Orakpo figures to earn the spot, but Blades won’t hand it over. Thomas and Campbell will most likely compete for a spot, but both may be kept for depth, and look for Henson to squeak in as well. I have a funny feeling that Blades might not give up his spot until mid-season, and we’ll still see a good bit of him as Orakpo will get some decent time at end on passing downs.
London Fletcher is easily one of the best players at his position, and will continue to be, but his biggest contribution as a Redskin has been his leadership ability. He’s the kind of guy that commands the attention of his teammates at all times. He’s the ultimate lead-by-example kind of guy, but he’s very vocal and very emotional as well. He’ll have to maintain his heart to make up for the loss of a genuinely good guy in Marcus Washington. Washington’s skills significantly depreciated last season, but he’s still one of my favorite Redskins, and he always knew how to put on a show. Orakpo’s work ethic has also been called into question in the past, but I don’t foresee that being a problem with Fletch flanking him.
The Linebackers might be one of the most balanced groups on the team in terms of player development. They have an aging but still-relevant vet in Fletcher that acts as a leader, the up-and-coming starter McIntosh, and the young phenom in Orakpo. There’s a decent mix of youth and experience with the backup group and that will pay dividends late in the season. If they can manage to flip field position a little more often in 2009, they could be one of the best units in the NFL. With Orakpo in tow, expect them to do just that.