For the 2013 season, the Redskins appear to be set at linebacker. Brian Orakpo should be back from the torn pectoral muscle he suffered in the second game of last year. London Fletcher is having some surgical work done and he plans on being back for his 16th NFL season. Perry Riley and Ryan Kerrigan both played nearly every snap of every game last year and should be in for the same this year. Top outside linebacker reserve Rob Jackson will be back after serving a four-game suspension to start the season.
The position doesn’t appear on many of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of draft “needs” lists that are floating around the Internet and various print publications. But when you take a closer look and consider that the NFL draft is more about shoring up your team for two or three years from now than it is for this year, it would not be surprising to see the Redskins draft one or two linebackers this year.
Out of the five top linebackers noted above, four are slated to be unrestricted free agents next year. Only Kerrigan is signed past 2013, who has two years left on his rookie contract. The only identified successor is Keenan Robinson, who is Fletcher’s heir apparent. Robinson got 69 snaps on defense last year and he played fairly well. But it’s a big leap from there to playing over 1000 snaps at the most important position in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense.
Even if Robinson can successfully take over for Fletcher there is the matter of the other inside linebacker spot to be considered. Riley will be 25 next month and a free agent next year. Per the evaluations of the folks at Pro Football Focus, Riley had a better year than Fletcher did in 2012.
There doesn’t appear to be a successor to Riley on the roster as of now. He certainly is on the list of players who will be priorities to re-sign next spring, when the team will have some cap room to work with. But it would not be surprising to see the Redskins draft an inside linebacker. That player could be groomed to replace Riley if he doesn’t return, to compete with Robinson for Fletcher’s spot (assuming he retires, not a certainty at this point), or to provide depth.
The good thing is that 3-4 inside linebackers can be found in the middle rounds of the draft. Riley and Robinson were both 4th-round picks. Like Riley, who sat for a season and a half before entering the starting lineup, there is an apprenticeship to be served but the position can be taught.
Orakpo will turn 27 during training camp and he is very much at a career crossroads. He is spending his second consecutive offseason rehabbing his left pectoral muscle. Although he has provided a steady pass rush he has yet to break through for the monster season that everyone thinks he’s capable of producing.
On one extreme, Orakpo could have a bad season, maybe missing some games with injuries, and end up with six or eight sacks. On the other he could break out and post 15 sacks and have opposing offensive coordinators spending sleepless nights trying to figure out how to contain him.
A big season would make him one of the prized free agents on next year’s market and the Redskins would either give him a lucrative long-term contract or if they couldn’t negotiate such a deal, give him the franchise tag. The Redskins probably would want him back even if he had an off year but for fewer years and less money, particularly if injuries are at the root of a mediocre season. But Orakpo could decide that he’d rather start fresh elsewhere.
Jackson, who played well filing in for Orakpo when he was out last year, came back on a one-year contract. He is 27 could be a long-term solution if things don’t work with Orakpo. The team just signed Darryl Tapp as a reserve pass rusher but it is unlikely that he is the answer if there is the need for an outside linebacker starter.
They could look at an outside linebacker in the draft who could be a longer-term solution should the Redskins find themselves without Jackson and Orakpo a year from now. They might have to get lucky as strong pass rushers are usually gone after the first couple of rounds and, with their more immediate secondary needs, the Redskins might not have the luxury of making an outside linebacker insurance pick this year.
If the Redskins can get Orakpo and Riley back on long-term contracts and Robinson can replace Fletcher when the time comes, they’ll be in pretty good shape with the ability to draft the best available players to groom as eventual successors. The team would have control of the situation for the next several years.
That is the optimal situation. The worst case would be Orakpo and Riley leaving as free agents and Fletcher retiring. That would have the Redskins rebuilding three fourths of their linebacking corps from scratch.