NFL draft: Three inside linebackers who could be fits for the Redskins

May 7

As Thursday’s start of the NFL draft approaches, The Insider wrapping up its look at prospects who might fit what Jay Gruden and staff are looking for. Mike Jones has been reporting on players at the positions the Redskins need most, with top-10 lists. Mark Bullock has been checking in with screengrab-based examinations of players who could be available early, mid-draft and late.

Mike listed his top 10 inside linebackers on Monday, and featured Wisconsin’s Chris Borland. Mark takes a closer look a three more ILBs who could end up with Washington:

High round: Ryan Shazier

Shazier offers the complete package at linebacker. He has the ability to play the run, drop into coverage and even rush the passer. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier played outside linebacker in Ohio State’s 4-3 defense, but would move to inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense that the Redskins use.

The primary job of an inside linebacker is to play the run and stop the offense from getting into manageable third-down situations. Shazier is excellent at reading the play and avoiding traffic en route to the ball-carrier.


On this play, the ball is being run to the left side of the offensive line, away from Shazier.


Shazier quickly reads the direction of the run and attacks the line of scrimmage, filling a gap that could have been a cut-back lane for the runner.


Shazier finds his way into the backfield and makes the tackle for a loss.

He does well when he’s able to attack gaps, but he can struggle when he faces a blocker head on, because of his size. Overall though, he does an excellent job playing the run. He excels at diagnosing the play and identifying the runner.

While his size might take a little away from him in the run game, it allows him to be more athletic in coverage. Linebackers that can be effective in coverage are rare and valuable. With fluid hips and good instincts, Shazier can drop into zones and read the quarterback or play man coverage.


The offense attempts to catch Ohio State’s defense with a play-action pass. Shazier reads the play correctly and isn’t fooled as he begins to drop back into coverage.


Shazier is smart enough to know what is coming from the offense. He turns and looks for the crossing route to make sure he can cover it and force the quarterback to look elsewhere.


Once Shazier knows he has the crossing route covered, he gets his eyes back on the quarterback as he throws the ball.


With the crossing route covered, the quarterback opts to throw a curl route on the outside. Shazier shows terrific athleticism to dive and get his hand on the ball, deflecting it away from the receiver and incomplete.

Washington desperately lacked a linebacker that could be relied on in coverage last season. Keenan Robinson showed some potential and necessary athleticism, but missed the season with his injury. Shazier would be able to fill that role in coverage, allowing Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to spend more time rushing the passer instead of dropping into coverage.

Shazier also offers something to the special teams, which given the state of the Redskins’ special teams last season, shouldn’t be overlooked.


Shazier lines up with his hand in the dirt, looking to block this punt.


He gets a great jump off the snap and explodes into the blocker.


Shazier manages to overpower the blocker and push him back enough to get in a position to block the punt. He gets his hands up and manages to tip the ball, making the punt fall significantly short of what the punter wanted.

Shazier is an every-down linebacker who can contribute to special teams. He’s been linked with a few teams at the end of the first round, but if he falls to the Redskins at 34, he’d be hard to pass on.

Projection: Late first/early second

Middle round: Christian Jones

Jones stood out at Florida State for his versatility. He played both inside and outside linebacker, as well as defensive end. He’s a raw talent who has things to work on, as every prospect does, but he shows that he is capable of doing everything you could ask of a linebacker.

He’s very athletic with quick feet and fluid hips that allow him to flip his hips efficiently. These are traits that you want when dropping into coverage. But he also has the strength to take on blockers, which you need in a traditional 3-4 defense. He combines his strength and athleticism to make him an effective pass rusher as well.


Here, Jones lines up as a defensive end over the right tackle.


Jones keeps his pad level low and gets his hands inside the tackle to gain leverage.


Jones drives the tackle backwards until he spots the quarterback stepping up in the pocket. Jones uses his leverage to work back inside.


He disengages and quickly closes on the quarterback, wrapping him up for the sack.

As an inside linebacker, Jones wouldn’t be asked to rush the passer as much as he was in college. But 3-4 defenses have the ability to send blitzes from any of the four linebacker spots. Jim Haslett had success in the past sending both inside linebackers on blitzes in the ‘A gap’ (either side of the center). As shown above, Jones would be adept as a blitzer, probably more so than any inside linebacker currently on the Redskins roster.

As a result of Jones playing multiple positions in college, he is still raw in certain aspects of the game. He doesn’t always identify the play correctly, some times reading run when its a pass and vice versa.


On this play, Jones lines up as a stand-up linebacker. The offense is going to run the ball to the right side of the offensive line, but also has a fake screen on the back side of the play.


Jones, along with many others, bite on the fake screen. Meanwhile, the ball is being handed off with Jones none the wiser.


Jones gets all the way outside the hash marks before he realizes that the ball has been handed off, effectively taking him completely out of the play.

This is something Jones can work on and will become more natural as he develops as a linebacker. He would need to for the Redskins to pick him. Washington plays the Philadelphia Eagles twice a year, who are the kings of misdirection on offense. This might make him a situational linebacker who doesn’t play every down right away. But if he develops to his full potential, then he could become a versatile weapon as a 3-4 inside linebacker.

Jones had a major red flag pop up this week, when reports surfaced that he failed a drug test at the scouting combine back in February. Every player is tested at the combine, so they should be well aware it’s coming. To fail a test when you know its coming tells NFL teams you’re either dumb or don’t care, both of which will put a lot of teams off. Earlier in the process, Jones was thought of as a potential second-round prospect, but this could make him fall to the fourth round or worse. Some teams might have taken him off their board completely.

Projection: Fourth round

Late Round: Yawin Smallwood

Smallwood is an underrated player in my eyes. He’s knocked for not being athletically or physically gifted, and he isn’t. But Smallwood excels with the little things. He does an excellent job reading the play, meaning he’s rarely fooled by misdirection. He’s athletic enough to drop into coverage and stay with a tight end down the seam, in a ‘Tampa-2′ scheme. Most importantly, in my opinion, he’s a sure tackler. I rarely saw him miss a tackle in the games that I watched.


This is exactly the kind of play the Redskins used in Robert Griffin III‘s rookie year with great success. The offense uses a lot of backfield action to try to confuse the defense. The play has a fake read-option look added to a pitch-option play with a receiver in motion. Smallwood is lined up in the middle of the field and has to sort through everything going on in the backfield and identify the actual play.


Smallwood isn’t fooled by the fake read-option. He notices the defensive end isn’t left unblocked, as would normally be the case with the read-option. He spots the quarterback taking off and begins to work his way to the outside while being pursued by blockers.


The quarterback fakes the pitch outside before cutting back inside. The contain defender is fooled by the fake and allows the quarterback to slip back inside. But Smallwood managed to avoid the blockers and has his eyes on the quarterback the entire time.


Smallwood wraps up the quarterback instead of being tempted to go for the big hit. He makes the smart, simple play to keep the offense to a minimal gain rather than risk missing the tackle, something the Redskins defense struggled with mightily last season.

As I mentioned, Smallwood might not be as athletically imposing as others in the draft, but he is athletic enough to cover a tight end running down the seam.


Once again, the offense attempts to misdirect Smallwood with a play-action pass to the tight end up the seam. Smallwood does take a false step forward but then begins to drop back.


Smallwood quickly recognizes the threat on the play is the tight end and rushes over to cover him, all while keeping his eyes on the quarterback.


Smallwood ends up undercutting the throw and drops what should have been an interception. But the ball fell incomplete, which is still a positive play.

Smallwood was a very productive linebacker in college and might get overlooked for more athletically talented prospects later on in the draft. But Smallwood is a smart player who works hard and does the little things well. I think he’ll manage to carry over his productivity to the NFL.

Projection: Fifth round

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

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