NFL Training Camps will reportedly start on time, even though the league has already scrapped the first two pre-season games. The NFLPA also voted to forgo the entire pre-season, so it will be a storyline to keep an eye on. This will make it even more of a challenge now for UDFA’s and late round rookies to prove themselves and get opportunities to make the team. The competition at linebacker should be one of the most intense battles to watch for the Redskins.
Veterans will be ready to go, but one linebacker has yet to take a regular season snap and his status is still in question. That player is 4th year linebacker Reuben Foster. Redskins fans are well aware of the damage that Foster did to his knee in a non-contact drill during OTA’s in 2019. Reports have stated that nerve damage was also a result of Foster’s knee injury and the linebacker has recently regained feeling in his foot due to nerve damage. Foster’s future with the Redskins is in doubt, but if he shows no signs of his previous form, he could be out of the league. Foster has said all the right things about returning in time for camp, but the severity of his injury shouldn’t be overlooked.
Although Foster is one of the bigger names in the linebacking group, the Redskins have a few under-the-radar linebackers that could have a big year. It’s understandable that the Alabama pedigree excites fans, but Foster could be a candidate for the PUP to start the season. The Middle Linebacker is a vital piece to new DC Jack Del Rio‘s scheme, but who’s in line to take the job? Foster’s former Tide teammate Shaun Dion Hamilton has shown he can be durable and his high football IQ make him a logical choice to start at MLB. In fact, SDH has played in 32 straight games as a starter or reserve with two passes defended and 37 solo tackles as a reserve in 2019. This team has lacked a true coverage linebacker so Dion Hamilton should prove to be a valuable asset as a starter or reserve.
Second year linebacker Cole Holcomb is a player the Burgundy and Gold Report spotlighted last season in The Tar Heel Steal. Although Holcomb had his share of hiccups, the rookie showed growth throughout the year, finishing second on the team with 105 comb tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 3 FF and 1 PD. The consensus is that Holcomb will be in competition for the starting WLB, but depending on his maturation, playing MLB shouldn’t be out of the question. In ’19 Holcomb too often reacted to the play, rather than anticipate.
On a few occasions Holcomb showed the type of anticipation and instincts that could lead to a bright future. New defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has a soft spot for quick, instinctive linebackers and pass rushers in his defenses. Cole Holcomb has the tools and instincts to be the All Pro linebacker that Del Rio is looking for. Holcomb will get every opportunity to succeed while playing behind a stout line that features Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, John Allen and Tim Settle. Wherever coaches decide to play the second-year linebacker, utilizing Holcomb’s speed & instincts will be key. Locking down the starting WLB could be in Holcomb’s future.
It was all but certain that new HC Ron Rivera would bring in some of his former staff and players, so it came as no surprise when Thomas Davis was signed. Davis fits the mold of the veteran leader Rivera wants in his locker room. The 16-year vet should be a candidate to start at SLB. At worst Davis provides depth and experience to help along the other young linebackers. Davis should be a valuable contributor to this defense, but expectations should be tempered. The former Panther/Charger linebacker is unlikely to be in Washington past 2020 considering he’ll turn 37 after the season, but will get every opportunity in camp to start.
The Strong Side Linebacker will have competition, but Ryan Anderson’s name has gained steam as a situational pass rusher who could also contribute on the strong side. Recent reports have surfaced that multiple teams have inquired about Anderson, but a late round pick seems to be the best offer Washington would get. Utilizing Anderson’s ability to attack the quarterback paid off in ‘19 leading to a career year for Anderson who registered with 30 solo tackles, 4 sacks, 9 QB hits, 5 FF , 1 recovery and 1 PD. Although Anderson was active in all 16 games, he only started 4. So, one would wonder if coaches will give Anderson the chance for extended playing time at SLB and/or the opportunity to be a situational pass rusher. Anderson will be a free agent in 2021 and has everything in the world to play for and as always, a chip on his shoulder. Unlike Thomas Davis, Anderson’s career is just getting started and if Anderson continues to build off of last year, he could be in Rivera and JDR’s long-term plans.
The new staff decided to bring back Jon Bostic and some in the local media have mentioned he could have the inside track to start at MLB. Although Bostic flashed in his first year with Washington last season, his ability in coverage was suspect and playing a reserve role at WLB/MLB could arguably be the best spot for him. Having Bostic in a reserve role immediately upgrades the depth at the position compared to years past.
Another newly signed linebacker that could open eyes is Kevin Pierre-Louis. The former Chicago Bear linebacker was used primarily as a reserve and on special teams, but did start 4 games. Washington will be his 5th team since 2014, but he could be a valuable contributor. Del Rio has mentioned him a few times during Zoom interviews stating
“KPL did some good things in Chicago and we were happy to sign him.”
Fourth year linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons could also be in the mix for a roster spot, but he’ll have competition from rookie hybrid LB Khaleke Hudson. Although Hudson is undersized at 5’11” 224 lbs the talent is there and the former Wolverine could be in position for more snaps in ‘21 if he bulks up and continues to improve. Developing and keeping young talent could be part of the new culture with Rivera calling the shots.
Washington will likely continue to look at the free agent and UDFA market, but they have compiled a promising nucleus at linebacker with Cole Holcomb, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Ryan Anderson, Thomas Davis with Reuben Foster being the wildcard if healthy. The Redskins invested a ton of early round draft capital on their D-line; now the linebackers could reap the benefits this year and beyond. Competition will be fierce at linebacker with Rivera and Del Rio demanding discipline, so fans should look forward to a significantly improved overall defense.
By Adam Aniba
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