- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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We will be featuring a different Washington Redskins player each day on this list, staying away from rookies or some second-year players still finding their way. This will focus primarily on veterans at or near a career crossroads. Today: linebacker Perry Riley.
Why he has something to prove: The Redskins re-signed Riley after a sluggish season in which they weren’t pleased with the production from their inside linebackers. They weren’t big enough factors in either the run or pass game, and the Redskins were content with letting Riley walk if the price was too high. But at this point last season Riley was coming off a solid year and some wondered if he could become a Pro Bowler. That felt like a stretch then -- he’s not a playmaker -- though it wasn’t wrong to view him as a solid player. Riley still has lapses in coverage, particularly in zone. He admitted last year that, because he played so much man coverage at LSU, he took a while to feel comfortable playing zones. But he still has flaws in that area, from a recognition standpoint, that must be corrected. It leads to big enough gaps and that leads to plays. The Redskins have insurance at inside linebacker, having signed two veteran starters in Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan. But they gave Riley a bigger contract for a reason: He is the likely starter. However, it would not stun me to see someone bump Riley from the spot if he repeats his 2013 performance. He hasn’t been a playmaker at all, with only one forced fumble and one interception in his career.
What he must do: Make some plays and be solid in the run game, which is the point of emphasis at this position. Riley does not miss a lot of tackles, so that is a good start. It’s nice that he has recorded 6.5 sacks the past two seasons combined, but if the Redskins do a better job in their four-man rushes, then Riley’s blitzing won’t be needed as much (though it’s a nice curve to throw). The Redskins did a good job in 2012 of moving him around, letting him rush off the edge on occasion, in their nickel packages. Riley is fast enough to then cause some problems, especially when the offense is fooled. But he has to be more sound in the pass game and be strong against the run. With a possible first-year starter next to him in Keenan Robinson, Riley’s knowledge of the defense will be counted upon. He knows the calls, but Robinson’s position is the one that makes them in games. Riley can help with them however. When you see the elite linebackers play, they move fast enough to the ball that offensive linemen can’t hold double-teams. So either the defensive lineman gets a one-on-one or the linebacker gets to the ball. London Fletcher's ability to diagnose plays was vital and it’s why he lasted so long (too many missed tackles last year however). Riley is not elite, but he’s now entering his third full season as a starter (he started half a year in 2011). He can give the Redskins more consistency, stemming from stronger recognition. It helps that he will now have Kirk Olivadotti coaching him; he focuses more on techniques and helping players improve than previous coaches (who focused more on assignments). That will help.
Projection: Starter. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a change at some point -- the defense ranked 31st in points allowed last season and hasn’t been a strong one for a while, so should anyone feel that safe? -- though it’s not as if a Pro Bowler is sitting behind Riley. Or a young hotshot rookie for that matter. If Riley doesn’t get it done this season they can always move on in 2015 and save $2 million on the salary cap. Riley can help them as he did in 2012.