With the NFL’s free agency period set to kick-off March 13, the Washington Redskins are expected to have about $40 million in salary cap space with which to make the many improvements needed to field a more competitive squad in 2012. Over the next week we’ll take a closer look at each offensive and defensive unit, examining how the current roster shapes up and whether potential upgrades exist either in-house, on the open market or via the April draft. Next up, the linebackers:
Brian Orakpo — Not an elite pass rusher like future Hall of Famers Demarcus Ware or Jared Allen, Orakpo is nonetheless a very, very good player who in three NFL seasons has been to Hawaii twice and selected as an alternate once. Though he isn’t the most fluid athlete and can be a bit stiff in the hips (which leads to his struggles in pass coverage), Orakpo compensates with tremendous strength and is probably most effective rushing the quarterback from a three-point stance. But he doesn’t have the frame or bulk to effectively hold up against the run as a full-time defensive end, whether in a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. Orakpo tends to rely on brute force and an unrelenting motor to get to the quarterback and could really take a step forward by expanding his arsenal of pass-rushing moves. His predictability only helps opposing tackles anticipate his movements and mask those holds he’s always imploring officials to call. He has improved tremendously as a run defender and in his ability to string out stretch runs. He should not however be asked to cover often, as he still struggles mightily when trying to keep up with pass catchers. Orakpo’s sole mission on passing plays should be getting to the quarterback. It should also be noted that Orakpo has evolved into one of the more vocal leaders on the team, both in the locker room and on the field.
Ryan Kerrigan — I think it’s safe to say that in his rookie season Kerrigan met or exceeded the expectations of just about every Redskins fan, or at least those who didn’t watch much Purdue football the last few years. A hard worker, Skins faithful should be even more excited about how much Kerrigan might improve now that he has an entire NFL offseason to prepare. Similar to Orakpo in his style of play, Kerrigan too has an excellent motor and isn’t the best athlete, though he may be more fluid and also has more natural hands. Like Orakpo, Kerrigan doesn’t have the speed and explosiveness to consistently blow by opposing tackles like a Clay Matthews-type edge rusher, instead relying more on strength and leverage to get to the quarterback. He showed signs last season of becoming a real technician, which could catapult him to stardom. Alongside Orakpo, Kerrigan forms a foundation around which to build this defense.
London Fletcher — Does anything really need to be said here? Before the Redskins consider offering an insane contract to Peyton Manning or trading up in the draft to select RG3 (plzplzplzplzplzplz), their top priority should be re-signed Fletcher, who became been the team’s unquestioned leader the instant he signed as a free agent in 2007. The ultimate locker room presence and still as productive as any linebacker the NFL, Fletcher isn’t a flashy playmaker but brings everything else you could want to the position — toughness, leadership, tenacity, heart, you get the idea. He’s the rare player that you almost wouldn’t mind overpaying for since it would demonstrate to the young players in the locker room that in the post-Haynesworth era hard work and accountability does not go unnoticed or unrewarded. Seriously, sign this guy immediately.
Perry Riley — After a rookie season that left many fans questioning whether he was a wise draft selection, Riley really showed signs last season of becoming a difference maker. Some games he seemed to be everywhere at all times, ultimate compliment for a linebacker. Riley has good speed and agility for the position, closes quickly on ball carriers and can deliver punishing hits. Fans should be excited to see how he develops now that he doesn’t have to worry about competing for a starting job in 2012.
Lorenzo Alexander — A consummate professional, special teams maven, and immaculate locker room guy and team leader, Alexander is willing to do anything and everything to help the team succeed. As will be a running theme in this series, all good teams have guys like Alexander who might not be Pro Bowl-caliber starters but have the kind of heart of elevates football teams.
Rob Jackson — Jackson has quietly developed into a pretty solid player, particularly as a pass rusher, so much so that it sometimes isn’t obvious when he spells Orakpo for a couple snaps.
Rocky McIntosh — I thought McIntosh would be a fit as an inside 3-4 linebacker, but obviously I was wrong. A good player, McIntosh signed a one-year deal in the offseason when it became clear Riley wasn’t ready to start in Week One. But he became a forgotten man once Riley took over at midseason and has seemed to grow increasingly disenchanted since. Management should let him walk as a free agent and continue his career with a team that runs the 4-3. He still has plenty of productive football ahead of him.
Keyaron Fox — Solid guy in the locker room, Fox also signed a one-year deal in the offseason and could go elsewhere as a free agent, but the Redskins might be wise to hang onto him. As weird as it sounds, Fox will be one of the better available linebackers that would be willing to sign a contract as a backup player. Since Fox has already spent a year in the defense, the team might as well retain him for another year or two so that if Riley gets hurt they will at least have a veteran backup to fill in.
Markus White — Perhaps no player flashed more during the preseason than White, who seemed to constantly stand out whenever he was on the field. Still, he proved too raw to get any opportunities in the regular season. Still, I love his potential as a situational pass rusher and think he could prove to be a steal as a seventh-round draft choice.
Overall — The Skins linebackers are a very good unit that could become great if Orakpo and Kerrigan continue to progress, Riley seizes his starting role and the team re-signs the ageless Fletcher. Even the backups are solid, with the only concern being who will replace McIntosh. If the team either retains Fox or signs another veteran backup, I would prefer the Skins use a mid-round selection on a rookie, much like they did on Riley in 2010, in the hopes that he can develop into Fletcher’s replace a couple years from now.
Free agency — This should be quick. There are really no free agent options at linebacker that intrigue me. The starters and backups and outside linebacker don’t need to be upgraded and, like I mentioned before, Fox is actually one of the better backup middle linebackers on the market. The Skins could try and sign another veteran middle backer so they have two as backups, but I’d much prefer they inject a little more youth at the position.
Draft — If the Redskins didn’t have so many more pressing needs elsewhere, 2012 would be a great year to draft Fletcher’s eventual replacement. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict would all look great in B&G, but all three will be gone long before the Skins should consider selecting a linebacker. Possibilities in the middle rounds include N.C. State’s Audie Cole, TCU’s Tank Carder and Cincinnati’s J.K. Schaffer. As for outside linebacker, it might be one of the few positions on the roster the Skins don’t really need to worry about. There’s just too many other pressing needs to fill.
You can follow Riggo’s Rag (@RiggosRag) on Twitter!