Free agent inside linebackers: A name, value and sleeper Redskins could target

With London Fletcher all but retired and Perry Riley Jr. an unrestricted free agent, inside linebacker is just as big a need as any for the Washington Redskins this offseason. So I thought we could look at some linebackers in the latest post of our free agency series.

Big name: Brandon Spikes

The 26-year-old linebacker looks likely to be allowed to walk away from the New England Patriots. Spikes is one of the younger and bigger names available at inside linebacker, and is one of the better run defenders in the NFL. He displays good ability to read the play before the snap and make tackles in the backfield.

TFL 1a

Here, the Bengals are running a zone play to the right. The ball has just been snapped, and barely anyone on either side of the ball has moved, apart from Spikes. Spikes read the play before the snap and immediately burst towards the line of scrimmage from the snap, even guessing the snap count correctly.

TFL 1b

By the time the running back receives the handoff, Spikes has reached the line of scrimmage. He fights off a weak attempt to slow him down by the right guard. Spikes stays low, powering through the outstretched arm of the guard.

TFL 1c

Once he makes it free into the backfield, Spikes wraps up the runner perfectly, bringing him to the ground for a two-yard loss. That is the kind of play Washington used to see from London Fletcher over the years, but has recently missed from him as he moved closer towards retirement.

Spikes also demonstrates his ability to take on blockers and still reach the ballcarrier.

run def 1a

On this play, Spikes has to take on and shed the block of the center to get to the running back.

run def 1b

Spikes attacks the block head on, getting himself lower than the center.

run def 1c

Spikes then explodes into the block, knocking the center back and off balance. That allows Spikes to get off the block quickly and work towards the runner.

run def 1d

Spikes joins his teammates in bringing down the running back for a minimal gain and is credited with an assist.

This is something Fletcher struggled with once the Redskins transitioned to a 3-4 defense under Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett. Fletcher was undersize as a 3-4 inside linebacker and got by on his play recognition and experience. Spikes has the size to shed blockers on his way to the runner; it’s a big strength of his. Spikes’s downfall is his coverage ability. His size gives him an advantage coming downhill and attacking the line of scrimmage, but it limits his ability to drop effectively into coverage. Spikes is reportedly looking for a big contract, given his age and production. But if he is limited to being a two-down linebacker, then his value is significantly lowered. I’m sure the Redskins would love a young, tough run stopper in the middle of their defense to build around, but Spikes might be out of the Redskins’ price range if they can’t trust him on third downs.

Good value: Daryl Smith

Smith finds himself on the open market again after playing on a one-year deal with the Ravens this season. He took on the unenviable job of filling the shoes of Ray Lewis. Nobody could have truly replaced what Lewis brought to the Ravens’ locker room, but Smith certainly softened the blow of the transition. With the Redskins likely moving on from a player of a similar caliber in Fletcher and having seen Smith have success in a similar situation, he could appeal to Washington. The Redskins have lacked reliable coverage from their linebackers in recent years. Smith had an excellent year from a coverage standpoint, particularly in underneath zones. He managed three interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown:

INT 1a

The Texans are running a route combination designed to manipulate an underneath zone defender, who in this case, happens to be Smith.

INT 1b

Smith drops back into coverage and stays level with the deeper route. But he’s also quick to recognize the threat of tight end Owen Daniels. The immediate corner route up the seam is designed to take Smith’s attention to open up room underneath for Daniels to cut into. Smith does an excellent job keeping an eye on Daniels, but staying on top of the corner route.

INT 1c

The moment Smith spots Daniels planting and cutting back inside, he leaves the corner route and breaks down to the underneath threat.

INT 1d

Smith then gets his eyes on the quarterback as he breaks on Daniels’s route.

INT 1e

That allows Smith to see the ball the whole way and jump in front of Daniels for the interception, which he is then able to return 36 yards for a touchdown.

Coverage for linebackers isn’t all about being able to match up in man coverage against big physical tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. They also need to be able to play in zones and recognize how route combinations are being deployed to beat them. Smith shows here that he can do just that, which is something the Redskins could desperately use.

However, Smith has his downside too. As an inside linebacker, the primary role is to stop the run. While Smith isn’t a terrible run defender, he’s not a great one either. One positive is that he is a sure tackler. Pro Football Focus credited him with just seven missed tackles on 1,097 snaps. But I saw him hesitate and struggle to get off blocks too often. Here’s an example:

run def 1a

Here the Texans show a run-heavy look, but are going to run an inside zone play away from the heavy side of the line.

run def 1b

Smith starts the play initially well, charging to the line of scrimmage. But then he hesitates as he spots the center working to the second level. This hesitation allows the center a chance to better position himself.

run def 1c

The center is able to cut off Smith and create a running lane for his running back.

run def 1d

Smith ends up getting pushed back into a teammate, taking him out of the play as well. All the while, the running back is running right up the middle of the defense.

Smith would be a nice addition at the right price. At 31, he’s likely to be looking at his last big contract before retiring. I doubt he’d be willing to take another one- or two-year prove-it contract like he did last offseason with the Ravens. But Smith would definitely add something different to the Redskins at linebacker.

Under the radar: D’Qwell Jackson

Jackson wasn’t due to be a free agent, having signed a new contract with the Cleveland Browns recently. But after a number of changes to the Browns coaching staff and front office, Cleveland opted to cut Jackson and save money. At 30 years old, few have been through more controversy and losing teams than Jackson. His leadership at middle linebacker  has given the Browns a sense of stability in an otherwise unstable organization. If there is a NFL franchise more dysfunctional than the Redskins, it is the Browns. That makes Jackson perfectly qualified to take over from London Fletcher from a locker room standpoint.

● Related: Offseason question: Should the Redskins pursue Jackson?

But what about on the field? He’s slightly undersize for a prototypical 3-4 inside linebacker, at 6 feet, 240 pounds, but has been productive in that spot for the Browns. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in instincts and work ethic. As a seven-year veteran, Jackson knows when to burst through a hole and blow up a play, and when to be patient and let the play come to him. Here’s an example of the latter:

run stop 1a

The Bengals run a stretch play to their left.

run stop 1b

Jackson understands how stretch runs work. The running back either takes the run all the way to the edge (which isn’t Jackson’s responsibility) or cuts back inside. Rather than immediately bursting through the line or sprinting outside, Jackson waits patiently.

run stop 1c

The runner attempts to sell the run to the outside and get Jackson to overpursue. But Jackson keeps his eyes on the running back and waits for the cut back.

run stop 1d

Jackson mirrors the runner perfectly. The moment he cuts back inside, Jackson follows him into the hole.

run stop 1e

Jackson attacks the waist of the running back and wraps up before bringing him to the ground for a minimal gain.

There are plenty of linebackers who wouldn’t have been patient enough to make that play. Many would have tried to burst through the hole, and in the process created a bigger cutback lane. But that’s the experience of Jackson shining through. He knew exactly how the play was designed to be run and knew what he and his teammates’ assignments were. He trusted his edge defenders to force the play back inside to him.

Jackson is known as a run stopper; and while he’s not great in coverage, he’s capable of dropping back into different zone schemes.

INT 1a

This is Jackson’s sole interception of the season. He’s dropping to the deep middle of the field in Tampa-2 coverage. New England runs a route combination designed to occupy Jackson with the deep route up the seam and open up the dig route underneath.

INT 1b

Jackson does a good job keeping his eyes on quarterback Tom Brady as he drops to his landmark.

INT 1c

He isn’t fooled by the deep route, focusing purely on Brady’s eyes. He follows Brady’s eyes to the direction of the throw and begins to break on the ball the moment Brady begins to throw.

INT 1d

Jackson had a lot of ground to make up, but manages to undercut the route and intercept the pass with a fantastic diving effort.

Jackson’s not as good as Smith is in coverage, but he’s not a liability as much as Spikes. He’s not a strictly two-down linebacker. His leadership and ability to set the defense is reason enough to allow him on the field on third down.

Which inside linebacker would you like to see the Redskins sign this offseason?

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

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