The linebacker level is the very core of Jim Haslett's defensive scheme. And with today's news that London Fletcher is "leaning towards retirement," (team spin for they're not keeping him at his cap number) the linebacker level goes from a strength to a relative weakness.
Position Priority Level: High
The problem is that Fletcher had been covering up a weakness at LB for years upon years (six, to be exact), and eventually, he just wasn't going to be able to cover the hole anymore. The Redskins reached that point last season: Brian Orakpo missed the final fourteen games of the season. The defensive front became a weakness.
The good news is that with Fletcher's departure from the Redskins imminant, the Redskins will have the cap room to keep both of their primary backup's on the edges.
Analyzing the free agents: Rob Jackson does not qualify for unrestricted free agency under the current CBA, meaning that the Redskins should be able to allocate a second round Restricted Free Agent tender to keep him in the fold for one more year. Jackson's return shifts the Redskins number one priority in the draft from getting a pass rusher over to getting an inside linebacker. The Redskins absolutely could non-tender Jackson and let him walk, choosing instead to save the money and shop on the free agent market. But being that his qualification for RFA status is as much a gift as the cap penalty is a bane, I expect the Redskins to act opertunistically here.
Lorenzo Alexander is more likely to leave in free agency because Danny Smith is now the special teams coach in Pittsburgh. Alexander is a versatile backup, but he will be 30 this season, and players like him that play multiple defensive positions at a mediocre level are far more valuable in August when you're trying to cut down the roster than they are in March when you are trying to build it. It's not hard to envision a scenario where he walks. The two sides are far apart. Fans accustom to his special teams hits would enjoy seeing him back in the fold. Either way, the cap's not really a major factor because Alexanders deal likely won't exceed three years and will have a managable cap value no matter who signs him. This is about the amount of cash the team thinks he's worth against his market value.
Chris Wilson is not expected to be retained after a disapointing year. He doesn't offer much by way of pass rush at this point, except that he's the kind of guy who can line up anywhere. He's not really an edge rusher at this point, and is merely a package player who will be in a roster crunch at the end of the year no matter which team he is playing for.
Analyzing the potential targets for release: All good things must come to an end.
London Fletcher did not miss a game for 15 straight years. If he's on a roster for NFL Week 1 in 2013, I'll be stunned. The Redskins clearly never intended for Fletcher to play this season when he signed last year, because the base salary is so excessive. Officially, Fletcher is still undecided on whether he'll return next year, but his television appearances are becoming more frequent, as he really has a bright broadcasting future. Meanwhile, the Redskins are getting ready to move on from the captain. I just hope Fletcher decides to retire in the next week before the Redskins have to release him.
The Redskins save $3.4 million by releasing Fletcher. They can also designate him a post-June 1 release and save the full $5.5 million salary on the cap, paying off the difference ($2.1 million) next year by way of deadcap. The amount they would save moving on from Fletcher is enough to get both Rob Jackson and Lorenzo Alexander under contract, in case you are wondering.
Analyzing the players who will be retained: Ryan Kerrigan has quietly had as strong a start to his career as any defensive player in the 2011 draft. Aldon Smith has drawn many more headlines, thanks to the team success San Francisco has enjoyed. Von Miller and J.J. Watt, of course, is in a class by there own. But Marcel Dareus, Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, Corey Liuget, Phil Taylor, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan, and Cam Heyward were the other picks in the first round in the defensive front. Of players drafted after Kerrigan, only Muhammad Wilkerson with the Jets has arguably enjoyed a stronger career to date. With the caveat that three players (Jabaal Sheard, Justin Houston, and Quinn) are right on his tail with 15.5 sacks, Kerrigan's 16.0 sacks rank fourth in his draft class, and the most of any player available when the Redskins selected him. Bottom Line: Kerrigan has been every bit as good a value as he was expected to be on draft day. Now he just has to take his game to the next level.
Brian Orakpo, on the other hand, is just terminating his draft class. Clay Matthews has more sacks than anyone else in the class by about 15, but then it's Orakpo, followed by two guys who just received the franchise tag today: college teammate Henry Melton (Chicago) and Michael Johnson (Cincinnati), and one who still might, Connor Barwin (Houston). You want a good illustration of the value of a first round pick, and why I was down on the RG3 trade at the time? Johnson will earn more than $11 million and Melton will earn more than $9 million under the franchise tag this year. Orakpo? He'll cost $3.5 million against the cap, 13th most on the Redskins.
Vic So'oto is an interesting pickup. The BYU product was signed off the Green Bay practice squad in late December and played on special teams late in the year. So'oto didn't make the team out of camp, and was picked up by Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, who no doubt was a big reason he was picked up when McKenzie was in GB in 2011, when he made a small impact: active for 10 games and recorded a sack. If Alexander is not retained, he'll have a shot to make the team in August. If the One Man Gang is back...well, good job, good effort.
Perry Riley was neck and neck with Trent Williams last year as the team's most improved player, helping the 2010 draft class look a lot better than it had before. He's the Redskins best inside linebacker, and will soon be the most accomplished thing they have at the position. His career numbers: active for 40 games, with 24 starts, 105 tackles, and 4.5 sacks. Ignoring that the very next pick in the 2010 draft would have filled a much bigger need (CB Alterraun Verner of the Titans), and that Aaron Hernandez went 10 pick later, and that Geno Atkins went later that same round, Riley is doing incredibly well stacked up against what remained on the board in 2010 when he was selected. He's having a similar career arc to Jamar Cheney of the Eagles and Kavell Connor of the Colts, the other two LBs who have ascended to the starting lineup coming from day three of the 2010 draft. It's worth pointing out that Riley and Brandon Spikes of the Patriots have having very similar careers to date, and Spikes went two rounds before Riley did.
Roddrick Muckelroy was taken the same round in the same draft as Perry Riley, and hasn't quite played 10 regular season snaps in his career. The main culprit: injuries that ended both of his first two seasons. He was healthy last year for the first time, and got released midseason by the Bengals. Unlike So'oto, who seems to be well respected around the league, Muckelroy is a complete flyer by the Redskins. He's got a shot to make the team because the Redskins are so thin at ILB, but so does literally anyone who puts the jersey on between now and opening day.
Keenan Robinson is likely going to enter minicamp in a couple weeks rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle, and as a de-facto starter in the defensive front seven. He has starters potential, being a major steal when the Redskins nabbed him in the fourth round last year to fill a major need. But like his predecessor Rocky McIntosh, a major injury early in the career of a linebacker is not a good sign. The Redskins are 97% certain to sign a veteran linebacker so Robinson doesn't have to rush back for Week 1: he may have a month head start on Robert Griffin, but an ACL remains a serious injury. He's likely to receive starter snaps this year, but if the Redskins can manage the roster, he won't be a major factor right from Week 1. Perry Riley in 2011 is a good example of how you can expect Robinson's season to go.
Ricky Elmore was signed to a futures contract by the Redskins.
Analyzing the ways to improve the linebackers through the draft: the Redskins can sleep easier given their proclivity to find productive linebackers on day three of the draft over the last six years (HB Blades/Perry Riley), so even though it might be their single biggest need on the field, the Redskins don't have to run out and draft a linebacker in the second round. But if the right man is available, they probably will get more value picking at LB than at any other position in that round (unless they really love an available free safety).
Linebacker targets who might be around when the Redskins pick include anyone not named 'Ogletree' or 'Te'o.' This includes Jelani Jenkins of Florida, Kevin Minter of LSU, or Arthur Brown of Kansas State. Look for the Redskins to attempt to recreate the Byron Westbrook effect by adding the brother of an Eagles running back (Bryce Brown) to their roster.
Analyzing the ways to improve the linebackers through free agency: Packers LB Brad Jones is probably the best available LB with regard to the Redskins' needs, but it's hard to gage his market being that he's played both outside and inside in the 3-4. Danell Ellerbe is likely to re-sign with Baltimore. If Jones is out of the Redskins' budget, then Dan Connor could be a good value pickup after he is (most likely) released by the Cowboys.
It's a very thin inside linebacker group as far as the free agent market goes. Late in the draft (plus a bargain basement signing) may very well be the best option for the Redskins to take. Bargain basement FAs may include: Larry Grant (SF), Dan Connor (DAL), Bradie James (HOU), Bart Scott (NYJ), and Larry Foote (PIT).