Reporting David Elfin
RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC) — London Fletcher was chosen for the last four Pro Bowls, has started an NFL-most 240 consecutive games and has led the league in tackles during his 14 seasons as a starter. Brian Orakpo (2009) and Ryan Kerrigan (2011) were both selected in the first half of the first round of a draft and have already been picked for Pro Bowls, the former twice.
Unlike captain Fletcher, Geico commercials star Orakpo or wholesome, All-American boy Kerrigan, Washington’s fourth starting linebacker, Perry Riley, is rarely noticed. While the others often are surrounded by cameras and notebooks in the locker room, Riley slips in and out like the backup he was for his first year and a half in Washington before he supplanted long-time starter Rocky McIntosh at mid-season 2011.
“I’m not the kind of guy who wants to be in the spotlight,” said Riley, a fourth-round pick in 2010, although the second draft choice for coach Mike Shanahan in Washington because the Redskins didn’t have second- or third-rounders. “I don’t need all the attention. Those three guys deserve to go to the Pro Bowl, but it definitely lights a fire under me. I don’t want to be the only one left out. I have the talent, I have the tools I need to be a Pro Bowl player. Now I just gotta get in there.”
Four linebackers from one team in a Pro Bowl seems ludicrous except that the 1992 New Orleans Saints pulled it off when Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson was joined on the NFC squad by Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson. All wound up being chosen at least four times.
Shanahan, who was San Francisco’s coordinator back three decades ago when Jackson and Co. made life miserable for NFC West offenses, raved about the 6-foot-1, 238-pound Riley’s physical play and called him one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL.
“I think [Perry]’s really on the verge of making that next step of being [an elite] linebacker,” Fletcher said. “We have a unit that can be dominant.”
Not that the 25-year-old Riley was thrilled with his first full year as a starter during which he ranked second on the Redskins to Fletcher with 125 tackles.
“It was OK,” Riley said. “I did some good things, but I’ve got some things I need to improve upon that I’m working on now. Some people learn by the board, some people learn by film. I like to learn by experience. Getting that game experience, there’s nothing like that. Last year, I improved in [pass] coverage, knowing who I had to cover, what technique I had to cover them with and knowing where my help was, which safety I had and where they were. Those were things I really didn’t know when I [first] became a starter.”
Orakpo said that Riley is the most underrated Redskin.
“Perry can make all the plays at inside linebacker,” Orakpo said. “He’s a leader in his own way. He’s not really vocal, but he goes out there and does his job day after day. It’s not easy to get noticed when you’re playing next to London and you’ve got me and Ryan outside. Some day London’s not going to be here and I think the coaches see Perry as the guy who will take over making the calls and doing all the things that London does for our defense.”
Except that Riley, whose contract expires after this season – as do those of Orakpo and Fletcher – doesn’t want to wait to do all those things until the 38-year-old Fletcher has retired. When Fletcher missed most practices down the stretch last season to rest his ailing ankle, Riley took over the play-calling duties in practice. The Redskins won their final seven games to win their first NFC East title since 1999.
“Assignment-wise they’re identical, the mike just makes the calls,” explained Riley, who plays the jack linebacker next to Fletcher’s mike in coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4 scheme. “My plan is to make more tackles than London this year. I want to be the lead tackler while he’s still on the team. I don’t want to wait until he leaves. It will be big shoes to fill, but I’m up to the challenge. I’ve learned a lot. I feel like I’m ready.”
If Riley is really ready to ascend to a Pro Bowl level, then Washington’s linebacking corps could be the NFL’s best.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin