How does the loss of Cole Holcomb impact the Washington Commanders and their plans at the linebacker position in 2023?
The Washington Commanders, like most teams in the NFL’s first decade, ran a single-wing offense throughout the 1930s. In the ‘40s, they followed the lead of the Chicago Bears and opened up the passing game with a split-T backfield.
Sammy Baugh became the league’s most prolific modern quarterback. In the ‘70s, they again followed along with league-wide trends and ran an I-formation, with a tailback and a lead blocking back behind center. Joe Gibbs would modify this into a two-tight end set which employed a hybrid tight end/fullback as an H-back.
By the turn of the century, with rules continuing to favor passing, the standard offense had again changed. Few teams used two running backs anymore. Nor did they use two tight ends. The base NFL offense for several decades has been one back, one tight end, and three wideouts – an X, a Z, and a slot receiver.
Commanders have work to do at LB after Cole Holcomb leaves
But this isn’t about offenses. This is about Cole Holcomb.
Or, more to the point, this is about how the Commanders will build their defense now that Holcomb has agreed to terms with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Washington’s linebacking corps, which has been paper thin for the past few seasons, will again need some re-imagining.
The last time the Commanders had a classic 4-3 defense was in 2020. Holcomb played the strong side, Kevin Pierre-Louis had coverage duties on the weak side, and Jon Bostic was a somewhat undersized middle backer.
It wasn’t ideal, but it worked reasonably well, at least until Pierre-Louis’ injury kept him out of the last several games, and Washington had nowhere to turn. They ended up bringing in a free agent – Mychal Kendricks – to play major minutes in the playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 2021, the Commanders drafted Jamin Davis and tried him at the MIKE. They moved Bostic to the WILL spot. Thus, they basically had two players – one a rookie – playing out of position.
To the shock of no one – other than the coaching staff, it seems – this did not work. Davis was overwhelmed. Bostic got hurt. And thus began the Commanders’ transition to a 4-2-5 base defense.
That has remained, and with good cause. If the NFL’s base offense employs three wideouts, then moving to three cornerbacks seems logical. You need four good linemen and a run-stuffing safety who can also cover. Kamren Curl won his starting spot by performing as this buffalo nickel back.
So the fact that Washington went into 2022 without having addressed their obvious need at linebacker wasn’t as disastrous as some thought it would be. Holcomb and a hopefully improving Davis would be on the field a lot. David Mayo could provide run support. Khaleke Hudson could help with coverage. The only problem would come if someone got hurt because there was no real depth.
Then Holcomb went down. Washington cobbled together a partner for Davis from Mayo and Hudson and the recycled Bostic, but it wasn’t very good. Even with the former first-round pick getting better, the team’s linebackers remained a weakness.
Now that Holcomb is gone, that weakness is in the spotlight again. Davis is the only linebacker currently on the roster who can play every down. They have signed Cody Barton, who has played with the Seattle Seahawks over the last four years.
Barton is smaller and faster than Holcomb. He is probably a better athlete and perhaps will offer Jack Del Rio more flexibility in his sets. But he reminds me a lot of a younger Bostic and seems to be best suited to play the middle in a 3-4 – so exactly how Del Rio will deploy him in a 4-2-5 remains to be seen.
There is not much help sitting out there on the free agent market at this point. I don’t think this was an especially strong year for veteran linebackers, which is why a lot of us thought it made sense to bring Holcomb back.
Commanders need to target another LB before the 2023 season
Most of the other capable young veterans – including Barton and Holcomb – are gone. The one exception is Drue Tranquill, late of the Los Angeles Chargers. He would make a lot of sense in Washington, but there has been no confirmed interest.
The Commanders seem to like Mayo as a special teams guy who can provide decent minutes on running-downs. But the problem, as it was last year, comes when either Davis or Barton goes down with an injury. There is virtually nothing behind them – no one you would trust to play serious minutes.
Thus far, no mock draft I have seen has the Commanders investing in a high-end linebacker. Iowa’s Jack Campbell is my favorite prospect this year, and it’s possible he could slip into the third round. Possible, but not likely.
If the Commanders could get him in the third, I’d be all for that. But I don’t think he’s worth a second-round pick.
So they may be looking at a sea of pretty good athletes in Rounds 3-5 to try and find someone who could share minutes with Davis and Barton. What they really need is to identify this year’s Nick Bolton, a player whose measurables caused him to fall a little bit, but who is simply an excellent football player.
The Kansas City Chiefs were able to get Bolton late in Round 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft after some higher-profile linebackers were off the board. DeMarvion Overshown, from Texas, looks like that kind of player to me. He could be a third or fourth-round pick.
But at this point, nothing the Commanders could do would be an obvious solution to what remains a potentially big problem. They still have a lot of talented, big-hitting safeties behind starters Curl and Darrick Forrest, so Percy Butler or Jeremy Reaves may be asked to take on more responsibility as the season goes on. Both are good players.
But the Commanders’ best strategy now might be to make a few offerings to some celestial beings so that Davis and Barton remain healthy in 2023.
Good luck in black and gold, Cole. Kind of wish you were still here.