Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Offseason needs: inside linebacker
By John Keim
Next up in the offseason needs category: inside linebacker. This could be a tricky one to fill because, while there are some good options, there's not a lot of depth of choices for teams that need an immediate starter.
Why it’s a need: The Redskins have to replace starter, and captain, London Fletcher. Perry Riley is a free agent, too. If he somehow leaves, then they’d obviously have to find two starters. They also need to find more depth, especially players who can help on special teams. The Redskins would like to re-sign Riley, but if he gets in that $5 million a year range, then it’s tough to justify. I don’t know that he’s going to get a whole lot better than he is now.
In-house options: The Redskins don’t have many. Keenan Robinson is coming off his second torn pectoral muscle in as many seasons and there’s no way you can project him as a starter. He lacks experience and must prove he’s durable. He has good speed and can help in coverage, but my guess is they’d be happy if he became a part-time player who helps more on special teams. He needs a year to show what he can do. Nick Barnett is a free agent and not an option. He was a two-down guy and not well-suited for special teams. Bryan Kehl also is a free agent and coming off a torn ACL. He's a backup/special teamer. They need a starter.
Free agent options: The player that jumped out for me was Arizona’s Karlos Dansby. He was the best all-around inside linebacker of the available options, but it’s hard to see the Cardinals letting him walk. He moved well laterally, arrived with some pop and did a good job taking on blockers. As coaches like to say, he played with his eyes. D’Qwell Jackson is free, but seems more interested on returning to a 4-3 where his play was better than in a 3-4. He was OK; didn’t think he was special but also didn’t see a lot of missed tackles in the games I watched. I saw him too often trying to avoid blocks, which is OK if it works but it can also take you out of the play. New England’s Brandon Spikes is a two-down player tops, coming out in obvious passing situations. But he’s excellent against the run. Keep in mind, though, one of his best games last year occurred against Cincinnati and Jay Gruden’s offense. In that game, I saw him getting off blocks well to make a couple plays and he also intercepted an Andy Dalton pass. If you sign him, you’d have to hope Robinson is ready for a big role in the pass game, as he was doing as a rookie. But how much do you spend for a two-down guy (though this staff emphasizes stopping the run first and foremost)? Baltimore’s Daryl Smith is good and is a three-down linebacker, but will the Ravens let him get away? He’d be a strong pickup. Smith and Dansby turn 32 and 33 before the season, respectively. Spikes is only 26. Houston’s Joe Mays is a candidate for one of the backup/special teams roles -- they almost signed him last summer and I wouldn't be surprised at all if they pursue him again. The New York Giants’ Jon Beason is probably best suited for a 4-3. When you look at the list, it’s limited and that’s why they’ll need to try and keep Riley, albeit at a smaller deal than he probably desires.
Draft options: Everyone says this is a deep draft, one of the deepest in years. But I’m not sure that’s the case at inside linebacker, where only one inside linebacker is projected as a first rounder (C.J. Mosley) and perhaps only one as a second-rounder (Chris Borland). But there are a couple intriguing options, including Florida State’s Christian Jones. He played inside and outside for the Seminoles, but likely will slide inside in the NFL. His athleticism is apparent. I saw one stat that jumped out: he missed only two tackles last season. But after playing multiple spots it likely would take him time to be ready to start. Wisconsin’s Borland lacks Jones’ athleticism, but he’ll be tempting just because he’s a solid player with good instincts and toughness. Those latter traits compensate for many shortcomings and his play against the run will tempt any staff. But will he be able to cover? Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood, who left after his junior year, covered receivers on occasion. There’s a good chance he’ll be better in the pass game, both in coverage and as a blitzer, than against the run. He’ll need to develop in that area. Stanford’s Shayne Skov might be more of a two-down backer. Jones, Smallwood and Skov are projected as third-to-fifth round picks. It’s tough to find day one starters at those spots. It’s a good thing the Redskins have Kirk Olivadotti coaching the inside linebackers; he’s a good teacher who will help their development.