Where to begin rebuilding Redskins: Defense, position by position

Perry Riley Jr., DeMarco Murray

Perry Riley Jr., here wrapping up DeMarco Murray Sunday against the Cowboys, is likely to be back no matter the defensive scheme. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

After another disappointing loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins have just one game left this season. It looks likely that the Redskins’ coaching staff will be overhauled and Washington will go in a different direction. Any new potential coach will be tasked with rebuilding a statistically poor defense.

Rebuilding the defense will take more effort than the offense, which I previewed a few weeks ago. The first decision to be made is what scheme will be run. Mike Shanahan wanted a two-gap, 3-4 system when he took over. He hired Jim Haslett to install said system. A lot of fans want the next coach to revert back to the 4-3 defense. In reality, the scheme isn’t as important as getting talented players to perform. There are plenty of successful 3-4 and 4-3 defenses around the NFL. The very best defenses, using the Seattle Seahawks as an example, run a hybrid system that involves principles from both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.

The good news is that next Redskins coach won’t need to entirely overhaul the personnel to install a new scheme, as Shanahan did to run the 3-4. Washington’s best players  Barry Cofield, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo — are scheme diverse. But outside of those guys, the Redskins lack talent on the defensive side of the ball. Whatever scheme the new coach opts to run, he’ll have to reinforce similar areas.

Defensive line

Clear starters: Cofield has been a solid performer since he arrived in Washington to become the nose tackle at the heart of the 3-4 defense. He’s played admirably at an unnatural position for him. Cofield had to make an adjustment from a one-gap defensive tackle to a two-gap nose tackle. But he’s clearly at his most effective when he’s allowed to play as a one-gap tackle. Cofield is an adequate starter as the nose tackle in a 3-4, but could be more effective in the 4-3.

Upgradeable: Should Washington opt to switch to the 4-3, guys like Stephen Bowen become upgradeable. Bowen hadn’t had his best season this year before getting hurt, but had been a reliable two-gap defensive end. He’s been able to push the pocket in nickel packages, so he wouldn’t be a liability if the scheme changed. But the likes of him and Adam Carriker are more suited to the 3-4 defensive end positions. Chris Baker is an interesting case. He’s stood out more than any defensive lineman recently. He loves to shoot the gap and penetrate into the backfield. The problem is, in the 3-4 he has to cover two gaps. If he fails to make the play in the backfield, he leaves his other gap wide open. He might excel as an under tackle in the 4-3 with only one gap to worry about.

Need replacing: In the event of a switch, Jarvis Jenkins might find himself an odd man out. Jenkins showed much promise in his rookie training camp before missing his entire rookie season because of injury. He’s never managed to fulfill the potential he displayed beforehand. Rarely does he generate a pass rush, and he isn’t a dominant run defender. As a third or rotational defensive end in the 3-4, he fits. But when he’d have to move inside to defensive tackle in the 4-3, I can’t see him winning much playing time. Backup nose tackle Chris Neild is someone I struggle to see making the team under a new coach. He doesn’t offer as much as a backup that someone like Kedric Golston does, who is also an unlikely carry over.

Edge defenders

Clear Starters: Regardless of the scheme installed by a new coach, Orakpo and Kerrigan are the clear starting edge defenders (assuming Orakpo is brought back). There are legitimate questions as to whether Washington would be stout enough against the run with both Orakpo and Kerrigan as 4-3 defensive ends. Prototypical 4-3 ends are bigger and heavier than Orakpo and Kerrigan are. But Kerrigan has developed into a well-rounded player who defends the run to the tight-end side. Orakpo would benefit from being allowed to rush every down from the 4-3 end position. But he’s become a better run defender playing in the 3-4. Remember, even when Washington played in the 4-3, Orakpo saw time as the SAM (strong-side linebacker) on obvious run downs. Even then, they had concerns about his ability to defend the run with his hand in the dirt.

Upgradeable: Darryl Tapp and Brandon Jenkins have flashed as 3-4 outside linebackers, but both still suit playing 4-3 end better. If the Redskins opt to change to the 4-3, it’s unlikely both will be kept. Jenkins, being younger, has more upside, but Tapp has earned more playing time this season. Rob Jackson brings up another question altogether. He’s not effective enough as a pass rusher to be a 4-3 defensive end, but I wonder if he could move to the SAM backer position. If Washington remains a 3-4 team, then Jackson is a valuable asset who makes timely plays. But he lacks consistency and elite traits to become an every-down starter, which makes him upgradeable.

Need replacing: The edge defender group as a whole is pretty strong, assuming Orakpo is back. They lack a stout left end, should the team revert back to the 4-3, but I wouldn’t say anyone from the group needs replacing. The situation could change if Orakpo is allowed to hit the open market, however.

Linebackers

Clear Starters: Perry Riley Jr. looks set to take over the MIKE (middle linebacker) role from London Fletcher, who said last week he’s 99% sure he’s retiring at the end of the season. Riley has spent plenty of time under the tutelage of a great in Fletcher and should be ready to take on a bigger role on defense. His play on the field recently certainly indicates he’s capable of the added responsibility. But if a more experienced veteran like Wesley Woodyard were available in free agency, Riley could continue in his current role in the 3-4, or move to SAM in the 4-3 comfortably.

Upgradeable: Nick Barnett looked set to challenge Riley for the MIKE backer role before his injury yesterday. It’s still unknown how that injury could affect his chances of competing for the job next season. But he’s been solid in limited time this season when filling in for Fletcher or Riley. Barnett would be a solid option, if healthy, to play inside ‘backer in the 3-4 or a candidate to play SAM in the 4-3. Keenan Robinson is another player with injury concerns, after spending this entire season on IR. His athleticism makes him a good candidate to play WILL (weak-side linebacker) in the 4-3, should the team switch. He’d be looking to challenge for the second inside linebacker spot in the 3-4, as he was this season before he got hurt. But like Barnett, he’ll need to prove his health.

Needs replacing: London Fletcher is ready to retire, and based on his performance on the field this season, perhaps he should have done so last season. He hasn’t played as poorly as a lot of fans believe, but he’s far from his former self. His experience and knowledge of the game are invaluable, but unfortunately that couldn’t stop his decline this season. His presence will be missed and extremely hard to replace in the locker room. Someone will need to step up and take the reins as leader of the defense.

Cornerbacks

Clear starters: DeAngelo Hall has had his best season in a Redskins uniform. After being cut and re-signed in the offseason, Hall proved he was worth bringing back. He’s played against some of the best receivers in the NFL and held his own. He was trusted to play more man coverage this season, instead of sitting in zone as in years gone by. He repaid that trust, with particularly strong performances against Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant. It will be interesting to see what Washington offers Hall this offseason, or if they allow him to hit the open market.

Josh Wilson welcomes the challenge of covering slot receivers, and says the added responsibility has rejuvenated him. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Josh Wilson hasn’t had an outstanding season. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Upgradeable: Josh Wilson has been up and down this season. He looks more comfortable in the slot rather than outside, but has been forced into the starter role thanks to the lack of talent and depth in the secondary. Wilson has done everything asked of him this year, even playing some safety at times. That versatility improves his value, but his play as a pure corner makes him upgradeable. Like Wilson, David Amerson has had his ups and downs this season, which is to be expected from a rookie corner. I expect Amerson to improve next season, but he’s still best suited as the third corner. If a corner like Aqib Talib becomes available in free agency, Amerson could be afforded more time to develop without being overexposed.

Needs replacing: EJ Biggers was brought in on a cheap deal to compete for the third corner role, but he’s played a lot of safety this season. While he should be commended for his effort playing out of his natural position, he hasn’t played to a level that’s worth bringing back next season.

Safeties

Clear starters: Brandon Meriweather is the closest thing to a clear starter the Redskins have at safety. His athleticism allows Washington to play single-high and bring an extra defender into the box. But he’s far from set in stone as a starter.

Upgradeable: Reed Doughty has played well against the run when called upon, but his limited talents have held him back. He’s not a starting-caliber safety and is really more of a backup and special teams player. Bacarri Rambo played well for a sixth-round pick, but was thrust into the starting role due to a lack of talent at the position. He’s developing, but could be upgraded. Phillip Thomas will need to prove that he’s healthy and can catch up with the year of development he’s lost.

Needs replacing: With the lack of clear starters, it could be argued that most of the safeties need replacing. But they all have value as back up or developing players. Without a big free agent acquisition, like Jarius Byrd, all of these players will be given the chance to win playing time.

Rebuilding the offenseRedskins’ roster | statistics | 2014 free agents | salary information

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

What’s ahead:

●  Mike Shanahan speaks with reporters Monday at 3 p.m.; The season finale is in New York at 1 p.m. against the Giants.

More from The Post:

Wise: Whether coach stays or goes, something must change

D.C. Sports Bog: Cooley: Danny Smith wants Redskins job | More

Takeaway: Cousins takes a step in the wrong direction

Boswell: One-point loss to Cowboys is another case of harsh reality

Redskins lose heartbreaker | Another letdown for the defense

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