Healthy debate: Overcoming injuries will dictate Redskins’ LBs success

July 8, 2013

John Keim takes a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster heading into training camp, beginning with linebackers:

London Fletcher (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
London Fletcher (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Returning starters: OLB Ryan Kerrigan, ILB Perry Riley, ILB London Fletcher, OLB Brian Orakpo

Key backups: OLB Rob Jackson, ILB Bryan Kehl, ILB Keenan Robinson

New additions: OLB Darryl Tapp, OLB Brandon Jenkins

The rest: Roddrick Muckelroy, Jeremy Kimbrough, William Compton, Marvin Burdette, Ricky Elmore, Vic So’oto

Decisions: This looks like a rather easy position to handicap. If the Redskins keep nine linebackers, as they did two years ago (they kept eight last year), then it would be difficult for anyone in the “rest” category to win a spot. But if Tapp can’t play or if Jenkins struggles, it opens a path for someone else. Jenkins, though, because of his size and speed could develop into a good special teamer this year. Injuries would have to factor in as well. The starting spots all are set. Tapp needs to transition from end to linebacker, but he’ll only be used as a pass rusher.

Burning questions: 1) What happens if London Fletcher gets hurt? Knowing his past, he likely continues to play. But there’s a new reality: He’s 38 years old, coming off an injury-plagued season and two offseason surgeries (the first of his career). The older you get, the more injuries slow you down or have an impact. So the Redskins must be prepared just in case. Teammates and coaches like second-year linebacker Keenan Robinson’s potential; his speed is terrific and he was starting to play with good instincts, helping his coverage skills, when he was hurt. But Robinson missed valuable offseason practice time while recovering from his torn pectoral muscle. Bryan Kehl is a good special teams player who projects to nothing more than a backup. He’s not Lorenzo Alexander. Nothing wrong with that, but it means they’d need a different solution; or that it could take multiple players to take over for Fletcher. If Fletcher’s hurt, the defense suffers; it’s one thing for another linebacker to come in and know what he must do. Fletcher knows what everyone must do, as this spot demands. And you can’t underestimate the leadership skills. Perry Riley has progressed nicely alongside Fletcher, but it’s unlikely he’d replace him.

2) Will Brian Orakpo stay healthy? He said his left arm is feeling great after tearing his pec twice in the last 18 months. But he’ll still have to prove he can survive training camp (let alone the season).The tough part is playing on the right side and having to take on blockers straight up, he often must reach out with his left arm to tackle runners cutting to the inside. Orakpo’s presence is vital to the pass rush; maybe his sack totals aren’t elite, but nobody else on the roster makes others around him better the way he does.

3) What will Rob Jackson’s role be? He showed playmaking ability, using his excellent athleticism. But he is not better than the starting outside ‘backers, so he’ll return to a reserve role. Jackson, when he returns from his four-game suspension, will be worked in on passing downs to help with coverage and/or the pass rush. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will tap his creativity to work in Jackson; they used multiple linebacker sets a year ago to compensate for Orakpo’s absence. Fortunately for Haslett, both Orakpo and Kerrigan can rush from areas other than the outside, allowing Jackson to rush from the outside on occasion. If nothing else, he’s a proven backup should Orakpo get hurt.

What to watch for: Ryan Kerrigan’s pass rush. Last season, Kerrigan did not develop as a rusher the way he and others thought he might. Kerrigan recorded 8.5 sacks, but the bulk of them occurred when he was either rushing from another spot or to the inside, against a guard, rather than against a right tackle. It will help having Orakpo back to collapse the pocket on the other side and draw more double teams, though it’s incorrect to think Kerrigan’s sack total was only impacted by facing extra blockers. But what also will help is Kerrigan taking a better path to the quarterback. He said after the season that he was too cautious at times – heading too straight upfield — wanting to keep the quarterback contained rather than taking a more aggressive approach turning the corner, or working back inside. For Kerrigan to take the so-called next step he’ll have to improve in this area and better learn to counter when tackles take away his favored rip move.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @john_keim | @D3Keith | @Insider | @PostSports

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Mike Jones · July 8, 2013

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