The countdown to free agency continues along with our look at positions and players to target. Today we look at arguably the thinnest/weakest position on the team going into the 2014 season, inside linebacker. Lack of depth and development, coupled with injuries and retirements have have made ILB a priority position to address this offseason. The question is how does the front office fix a major hole in the heart of the defense.
Last season's starting ILBs will both be free agents or co-hosting NFL AM next season. London Fletcher has finally tagged out after a 16 year long Iron Man match with Father Time. Fletcher was 16-1, but 1 win is all it takes for old F.T. to claim victory. Fletcher's leadership will be the biggest thing that will be missed, as his play on the field was declining over the last several years. Perry Riley was being groomed as his replacement, and the plan is still to re-sign him for that role. Riley was named a priority re-signing by Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett, but there has not been any reported progress on a new contract yet. Nick Barnett and Bryan Kehl were both signed to 1 year deals, ended the season on IR after tearing ligaments in their knees, and are unlikely to return next year.
The only ILBs under contract for the 2014 season are either inexperienced, special teams only or returning from injury. Keenan Robinson was a 4th round pick two years ago, but has suffered from back to back cases of Papier-mache Pec Disorder(PPD) that has been devastating Texas linebackers for the last few years. Luckily the recovery time appears to be under 2 years from the initial diagnosis, so Robinson should be recovered in time for next season. Will Compton did not play a single defensive snap last season, and was only in on 21 special teams plays. Josh Hull was signed to play special teams and played 44.7% of all ST snaps, and only 1 defensive down. Jeremy Kimbrough was injured in the preseason and was placed on IR, he is easily replaceable/upgradable.
It's pretty damn scary when you lay it all out there, and now we need to play GM to try to fix the bleeding. It will probably take a mix of draft picks and free agent signings to get through this year, and prepare for the future. The draft is a mixed bag at inside linebacker this year, and even the top ILB has bad knees. If Riley is not re-signed, at least one veteran free agent will have to be brought in. Here are a few options that the team could consider.
Inside Linebacker Options:
1. Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens:
Weight: 248 lbs
Signed by the Ravens on a 1 year deal last season after 9 years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He recorded 123 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions(1 TD), 2 forced fumbles and 18 passes defended. He was a major steal for the Ravens and helped fill the holes left by Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe's departures. He is considered a priority re-signing for the Ravens, but they also have other free agents to re-sign, and there might be an opportunity to sign him away. Smith would be a short term fix, but would quickly make the ILB position stronger.
2. Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots
Weight: 255 lbs
late arrival at practice nagging knee injury ended his year last season, but he will be ready to play by the start of the 2014 season. He is probably a two down player and a "thumper" who will help in the run game. You will definitely need a coverage linebacker to allow him to attack the line. He's is an aggressive player, and very good vs the run. He started 11 of the 16 games he was active last season. Spikes had 86 combined tackles with 2 passes defended and 1 INT.
3. Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos
Weight: 233 lbs
Woodyard is someone I thought was a possibility to come to DC when the Shanaclan was still running the insane asylum here. He is another ILB who is better against the run than the pass. Pairing an athletic coverage LB/PPD victim Robinson with Woodyard could be what is needed to shore up the middle of the field for this season. His playing time was diminished last year, but he has the ability to play at a high level, especially vs the run. The contract would have to be right to sign him here.
4. D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns
Weight: 240 lbs
Jackson was a cap casualty last month, and has already generated interest from several teams looking for veteran linebacker help. Speculation is that Jackson is looking for the right situation, which would be a combination of the right contract, team stability, and a team in contention. One out of three ain't bad, right? Jackson has been on a decline in his level of play, and is a prime candidate to get one last contract and not live up to it. He had the 4th worst Run Stop Percentage last year, but did have 141 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 passes defended and 1 forced fumble.
5. Darryl Sharpton, Houston Texans
Weight: 235 lbs
Another LB who is better against the run than in coverage. Sharpton has had his share of injuries during his career with the Texans. He replaced Brian Cushing this year after he was placed on IR. He was active for 15 games, and started 8, recording 87 tackles, 1 pass defended, and 1 forced fumble. Chris Cooley recently mentioned him as an underrated free agent linebacker to look at in free agency. If Sharpton can stay healthy, he is a young player who should come cheaply due to his limited starting time and injury history.