July 28, 2009

Roster Review: Linebackers

A lack of depth at linebacker last season left the Washington Redskins in a bind when starting strong side LB Marcus Washington was sidelined with an injury. HB Blades didn’t have the speed to play there and once Washington returned, he also seemed to be a step behind.

Washington had become a more of a concern rather than an answer in the starting lineup, which led the Redskins to part ways with him and his big contract this past offseason.

This time around, the ‘Skins drafted a much-needed injection of youth into the linebacking corps. That youth comes in the form of Nebraska’s Cody Glenn and TCU’s, Robert Henson.

But first things first, London Fletcher will return to anchor the defense at middle linebacker. Fletcher hasn’t had less than 100 tackles per season since 2000 and he has shown no signs of slowing down at age 34.

Fletcher possesses all the intangibles. He is a tremendous leader, a motivator, and a vocal presence the ‘Skins sorely need. He is arguably the best run stopping MLB in the NFL and the addition of Albert Haynesworth in the middle will only make him all the better.

With Haynesworth in the middle, offensive lines will have difficulty getting out to block Fletcher, leaving him free. Ray Lewis benefitted when the Ravens added Haloti Ngata and Fletcher will as well with Haynesworth. A good DT works wonders for talented MLBs.

Rocky McIntosh will start at weak side linebacker. McIntosh is entering his fourth season, his second since coming off a season-ending knee injury.

He played well coming back from the injury last year registering 87 tackles, an INT, and two sacks, but he definitely played tentatively on his reconstructed knee at times. Another year removed from the surgery, McIntosh should only improve.

He’s a solid presence against the run and sniffs it out very well. Against the pass, there is room for improvement, but overall there are no glaring shortcomings in McIntosh’s game.

The strong side linebacker position is in flux at the moment.

Brian Orakpo is pencilled in as the starter, but on passing downs he will move to DE to rush the passer.

So in those situations, the Redskins have several options.

HB Blades has experience playing strong side, but he is a liability in coverage. He is smart and a great run defender, but he lacks the speed to cover backs, and the size to cover tight ends.

Chris Wilson is transitioning to LB after playing DE his first few years in Washington. He is quicker than Blades, but his coverage skills are an unknown. He could be used as a pass rusher from LB, but I don’t know if he could handle himself in coverage.

The Redskins could also use either Henson or Glenn if the two veterans fail to pan out.

Glenn entered college as a RB, but made the switch to LB for his final year at Nebraska. This makes him very raw at the position, but he has a lot of athleticism to make up for it. It will most likely take him a season to fully adjust to the pro game and the linebacker position.

Glenn also was suspended for part of the 2008 season for an undisclosed reason. He lied about his suspension, saying it was due to his scalping tickets. He later admitted he lied, and would not reveal the true reason for his suspension.

Henson has already been drawing praise from Redskins Park and might see the field at LB. Like Glenn, he will primarily play special teams and compete for time with the defense.

Henson notched 73 tackles his senior year (270 for his collegiate career), and also had two interceptions to go along with a sack. He’s 6-0, 240 and plays with good fluidity. He was a special teamer for three years before becoming a full time starter so he possesses the ability to make the team covering kicks.

Alfred Fincher made the final roster last year and played in 14 games mostly on special teams. He’s a hard worker and has good size at 6-1, 250. He should also be in the mix for time at LB.

Two other LBs are unlikely to make the team in seven year vet, Robert Thomas, and rookie Darrel Young. Thomas is an Oakland Raiders cast-off coming off a season-ending hamstring injury. He played in just two games last year.

Young is an undrafted free agent out of Villanova who posted 244 career tackles in four years there. He’s the camp longshot.

Overall Grade: B

This was a tough grade to decide on. Fletcher is one of the best MLBs in the game and McIntosh is a steady presence on the weak side.

However, the strong side is anything but stable. I think the ‘Skins may be forcing the issue when it comes to playing Orakpo there. It’s not his natural position. So if the experiment fails, will Washington look for a new LB in 2010?

Even should Orakpo pan out, there isn’t an ideal player to replace him on third downs. Blades isn’t a pass defender, Wilson is more of pass rusher, and Henson and Glenn aren’t going to be instant starters.

It’s quality depth, but those guys aren’t meant to be on the field regularly. Especially not on third downs when the defense is supposed to hold and get off the field.

I believe Blades will come in on third downs due to his experience starting on the strong side last year. He is a liability in coverage, but he can make up for that with his instincts. Wilson would be intriguing as well, and could see time there too should the ‘Skins want some pass rush off the edge.

The ‘Skins turned back the clock with the additions of Glenn and Henson. Henson, in particular, should make an immediate impact on the special teams, but don’t expect to see them much at LB.

The Redskins desperately need to have a strong side LB who can cut backs off from the edge and cover TEs. Orakpo/whoever replaces him on third downs are question marks on the strong side, and that’s what lowers this grade.

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