While the spotlight at Redskins Park shone brightest on quarterback Robert Griffin III last year, no unit had a higher profile than the linebackers. Three of the four starters had played in at least one of the three previous Pro Bowls. The fourth was considered a rising star.
But that group could look very different in 2014. Co-captain London Fletcher, the heartbeat of the defense for seven seasons, is retiring while top pass rusher Brian Orakpo and top tackler Perry Riley Jr. remained unsigned less than six weeks before they can hit the open market as free agents for the first time.
Washington wants to retain Orakpo, a Pro Bowl pick in his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010 after being drafted 13th overall, as well as Riley, who surpassed four-time Pro Bowl selection Fletcher as the leading run-stopper in 2013. And Orakpo and Riley have both said that they want to return alongside 2012 Pro Bowl outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.
New coach Jay Gruden’s decision to retain coordinator Jim Haslett even though the Redskins surrendered their most points in 52 years last season probably helps their chances of keeping Orakpo and Riley.
If Orakpo, who figures to be one of the most sought-after free agents, departs, Washington could plug in Rob Jackson, a credible starter in his place for the final 14 games of the 2012 NFC East championship season, or Darryl Tapp, once a starting defensive end for Seattle who was pretty much a non-factor in his Redskins debut in 2013. However, they’re both also unsigned and Jackson was very frustrated with his lack of playing time last year. That could leave Brandon Jenkins, a big-time pass rusher at Florida State who didn’t see much action as a fifth-round draft choice in 2013, in line to start.
Of course, Gruden and Haslett would surely also try to replace Orakpo, who’s fifth in franchise history with 39-1/2 sacks in just 64 games, with a high-profile free agent. However, beyond Denver’s Shaun Phillips, who had 19-1/2 sacks the last two seasons but turns 33 in May, and Dallas’ Anthony Spencer, who’s 30 and missed the final 15 games of 2013 following knee surgery, the list of potentially available outside linebackers is about as thin as Jenkins’ NFL resume. That makes re-signing the 27-year-old Orakpo that much more critical to Washington’s hopes of rebounding from its plunge to the division cellar with a 3-13 record in 2013.
Riley isn’t as accomplished as Orakpo, but he’s supposed to inherit Fletcher’s role as the leader of the linebackers and the entire defense even though he’s not nearly as vocal as the 38-year-old former captain. Maybe the return from Georgia of Kirk Olivadotti, a defensive assistant during Riley’s rookie year, to coach the inside linebackers will help convince him to stay put.
As is the case outside, the Redskins don’t have a lot of proven, signed depth inside. Veterans Nick Barnett and Bryan Kehl each finished last season on injured reserve and are unsigned. Barnett, a long-time starter for Green Bay and Buffalo, will be 33 in May and tore his left MCL in Week 16. Special teams demon Kehl suffered a season-ending torn left ACL in Week 6 and will be 30 this year.
Keenan Robinson, a fourth-round pick in 2012, was projected to take Fletcher’s place alongside Riley for years to come. However, he tore a pec on Thanksgiving of his rookie year and did so again last summer, meaning he’ll head into training camp in July without having played a snap in 20 months. Josh Hull was signed to replace Kehl and made 13 special teams tackles in 11 games, but isn’t considered starter material. Nor are 2013 undrafted rookies Will Compton, who debuted in Week 17, and Jeremy Kimbrough, who spent the year on the shelf after injurting a shoulder in the preseason opener.
At least there could be some free agent inside linebackers worth pursuing such as San Diego’s Donald Butler and New England’s Brandon Spikes, both of whom are finishing their rookie contracts, Baltimore’s Daryl Smith, and Arizona’s Karlos Dansby. Washington could also kick the tires on Jonathan Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who — like Smith and Dansby — will be 32 this season and missed most of 2013 with a knee injury.
All of this leaves Kerrigan, Washington’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft, as the only sure thing for Haslett and new outside linebackers coach Brian Baker. Kerrigan had 8-1/2 sacks for a second straight season in 2013, but just two of those came during the final nine games and he and Orakpo got to the quarterback in the same game just once after Week 4.
If Orakpo and Riley re-sign, the linebackers should continue to be the strength of the Redskins’ defense. But if Kerrigan is the only returning starter, the unit will have undergone its biggest turnover in a decade.
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.