Projected starters: OLB Ryan Kerrigan, ILB Perry Riley, ILB London Fletcher, OLB Brian Orakpo
Key reserves: OLB/ILB Lorenzo Alexander, OLB Rob Jackson, OLB Markus White, ILB Jonathon Goff, ILB Keenan Robinson, OLB Chris Wilson, ILB Bryan Kehl.
Vet in trouble: I don’t think it’s a lock that Kehl or Wilson make the roster. Kehl is said to be a good special teamer, but Robinson runs well and could contribute in this area too. If Goff is healthy (he tore his ACL last September) then he too can help inside.
Camp battle: All the starting jobs are taken, so it’s all for backup slots. But there will be some good battles for those last couple spots among Kehl, Wilson and White. The latter showed enough raw talent last year that it would be tough to discard him so soon.
What I like: London Fletcher. He still adds value to the defense and provides this side of the ball with a legit leader – players look to what he says before they look to the coaches. He matters that much. … Ryan Kerrigan’s effort level and his adaptability…. Riley’s hits, when he’s decisive and comes downhill… Brian Orakpo’s talent and his improvement in other non-pass rush areas on the outside….The ability to move Orakpo and Kerrigan around. They started doing this more at the end of the season and it should be more of a staple in 2012….The overall level of the group. It’s a solid starting unit and the depth, if Goff is healthy, is good. Goff would have started for the Giants last year. … Alexander’s versatility. His special teams prowess keeps him around, but his ability to play inside or outside makes him valuable…
Remaining questions: When will age catch up to Fletcher? It will at some point. It happens to everyone. There were some signs early last season that made you wonder if that time had arrived. But he rebounded with an excellent year…Will Orakpo have another pass-rush move? He tries to play by instincts, but his instincts haven’t led him to becoming the sort of pass rusher some hoped he’d be by now. … How will Kerrigan develop? … Can he become a double-digit sack guy in his second season? Will he be just a pass-rusher or will he develop as an all-around player? It’s not a given… Will Riley improve in coverage? (Actually, that answer could apply to many here).
Better or worse: It’s pretty much the same group. But it’s better than the group that opened last season if only because there’s no more Rocky McIntosh and Kerrigan had only had a month of practice. But it’s a group in flux. Orakpo needs to show more as a rusher; some say, or perhaps fear, this is what he’ll always be. If Fletcher starts to show his age, then this group would lose something. But if Kerrigan improves as they hope then it gains something else. As long as Fletcher can get through the next couple years, while mentoring Robinson and Riley, then the Redskins will be fine. There’s so much that Fletcher does for this defense it would be very, very difficult to replace. Might add another very to that sentence. Fletcher has to know a ton and whoever replaces him someday has to handle that same load… Riley needs to prove he can handle full-time duties; he was rough vs. the pass last season. This unit needs to cover better as a whole. The Redskins masked Kerrigan’s deficiencies well; he’s not great in coverage (nor was anyone expecting him to be last year) and it’s not a given that he’ll become terrific in this area. He’s paid to pressure the passer. It’s a good group.
Final word: There’s no reason Kerrigan and Orakpo shouldn’t be in double-digit sacks every season. But Orakpo needs to add pass-rush moves to become better. You can gripe about the holding penalties all you want, but guys like DeMarcus Ware avoid the holds and make big plays. The holding penalties aren’t holding Orakpo back. He needs to find ways to avoid those holds or how to react with better counter moves. Some NFL coaches I’ve spoken with wonder about his instincts as a rusher, mostly how he plays off a certain set by a lineman. I expect the Redskins to move him around a lot more, as a way to (partly) compensate for his lack of moves they’ll free him up by other means. They started doing this toward the end of last season, with Orakpo rushing from the middle and sometimes on the same side as Kerrigan. Also, as Kerrigan’s comfort level increases don’t be surprised if he’s used more vs. left tackles, freeing Orakpo to rush from the other side. The more these two pressure, the better the defense becomes. Orakpo drew fewer double teams late in the season last year and he was close to more sacks on numerous occasions. But he’s got to get home this year if he wants to take that next step as a rusher.
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