Every year, I compile a list of what I call the Redskins Most Irreplaceable Players. Typically, I have done the list in June or July, after most or all of the free agents and draft picks have been signed. It occurs to me that at that point, more players could be called irreplaceable because there simply is no time to replace them. Perhaps it would be both more challenging and more accurate to try and identify those players now, since one of the more important exercises performed by the front office this time of year is to identify the holes and work on filling them.
Keep in mind, this is not a list of the most valuable players, though the two lists would likely look similar. This list is not a list of the best players on the roster, though one could argue that most or all of these players would fit that bill. This is not a list of the players with the most promise/youngest talent (see London Fletcher). To that point, this list has to do with next year. It has to do with the 2012 season. Losing one of the players on this list would likely cause the team's winning chances to plummet. When I call someone "irreplaceable", I am suggesting that if the team were to lose this player, it would set the franchise back considerably, especially in the short term. In June or July, you could (or would) put a guy like Rex Grossman on the list because at that point, he might be your starter, and starting quarterbacks are frequently irreplaceable then. But does Rex Grossman make that list now?
Today, I am trying to find ten guys that are so crucial to the success of the 2012 season that losing them would likely result in losses. Consequently, if the Redskins agreed with this list, it would be reflected in the type of free agents they pursued as well as the positions they target in the draft. We will revisit this list in August to see how and if this list has changed, and more importantly, why it has changed.
I know there will be players that you think belong on this list, and I will be hard-pressed to disagree. Some of the decisions I made might be different as soon as tomorrow, but we'll put a stake in the ground here today.
1. London Fletcher -- Let's just get this one out of the way first. London didn't just lead his team in tackles again, he led the NFL in tackles. His example off the field is as important as his example on the field. Our roster is full of young players, and having a man like London Fletcher around to show them how to be professionals is essential. He is an extension of the coaches on the field and he has never missed a game. Despite his age, you would put a picture of London next to the word "irreplaceable" in the dictionary.
2. Trent Williams -- I will go straight from the most obvious to the most infuriating. Even if we were to draft a stud left tackle in the upcoming draft, Trent would still be a starting tackle on either side and would be relied upon to keep the quarterback's jersey as clean as possible. His talent is undeniable, and his improvement has been noticeable. It remains everyone's hope that he is able to avoid the pitfalls that caused his suspension in 2011. If he does, he will be a vital piece in our developing offensive line. With Trent Williams healthy and focused, our offensive line could become formidable, but if he is either injured or distracted, the hole he leaves at one of the tackle positions is likely not capable of being filled until the next offseason--at best.
3. Chris Cooley -- I am betting that this might get some comments. After all, Cooley is getting a bit older and Fred Davis came on pretty strong the last two seasons. In my opinion though, Cooley is close to being in the same category as London Fletcher--the "you have to have guys like this on your team in order to win" category. He is not an extremely vocal leader, but he cares about the game of football, he cares about being on the field regardless of the team's record or score and he is a smart player. Cooley knows everyone's job on the field. He sees the whole play and understands the roles of every player involved in that play. More importantly, he can be asked to perform more of those roles than just one. The reason why Fred Davis does not make this list and Cooley does is because Fred Davis only knows one role in any given play--his own. He knows how to go out for passes. He runs decent routes and is a valuable pass catcher, but that is about it. Fred Davis has been described to me as a player capable of making great plays but equally capable of destroying a drive due to being in the wrong place or failing to carry out a crucial assignment. This isn't to suggest we don't want or need Fred Davis. But Chris Cooley is a player that our offense has to have in order for it to be the best it can be. His superstar stat days may be over, but his clutch contributions will extend drives and open up opportunities for other players.
4. Ryan Kerrigan -- Every defensive line needs the kind of high energy, play-until-the-whistle-blows pass rusher. In Kerrigan, the Redskins have the proverbial "high motor" player that every team covets. Kerrigan is young and talented...and still learning and improving. But he is irreplaceable right now because he is already a producer. He seemed to add moves to his pass rushing repertoire as the season wore on, and he was impressive in pursuit on plays when he was on the back side of a run. He should have factored more in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but we should all know by now that voters have a very dim view of our team.
5. Brian Orakpo -- If you are going to employ a 3-4 defensive scheme, you have to have guys at the outside linebacker position capable of being effective pass rushers off the edge. Those players have to also be able to play in space in coverage situations and be athletic enough to hang with a running back or tight end. We could certainly debate the merits of Orakpo's coverage skills. I think we may be able to agree that he is much better today than he was last year at this time. And though we would all like to see him develop a few more moves off the edge, his pass rush can be extremely effective. He draws plenty of holding penalties (certainly plenty of potential holding penalties waiting to be called!) and he has average just under ten sacks per year in his first three seasons in the NFL.
6. Lorenzo Alexander -- Special teams is a very important facet of the game. We know this, despite being treated to a very pedestrian performance by our special teams unit this season. There is nothing pedestrian about the heart and energy of Lorenzo Alexander. He has shown his willingness over the years to do absolutely anything the coaches ask of him, whether it be offensive line, defensive live, linebacker, or special teams stalwart. When opposing players receive the punt or kickoff, rest assured they know what is coming for them: #97...and in a hurry. He hits hard, is a solid tackler and takes pride in doing his job. He is a crucial reserve on defense and is another player that is certainly a positive influence on the youthful guys we have on the team.
7. Rex Grossman -- If it is any consolation, I hate me for putting this name down, too. Simply put, there is no other offensive player on our roster that knows this offense as well as Rex Grossman. There is no other offensive player on this roster that can play quarterback in this offense better than Rex Grossman. Whether he is our starter on opening day or not next year, his institutional knowledge on the offensive of the ball is crucial to the development of any future signal caller wearing burgundy and gold. In some cases, teams like to get rid of a guy like Rex because his mere presence can be distracting to the growth of a rookie as well as a temptation for the coaches who might get impatient with the development of that rookie. In Rex's case, I think we should all feel safe in the knowledge that Mike Shanahan has absolutely zero interest in building this team around him. Rex provides us a little bit of stability and continuity on offense in a time of certain turbulence and change. In this bizarro world we find ourselves in, Grossman actually gives this Redskins team a little bit of slack next year, allowing Shanahan to start his rookie on the bench in September. What's more, no matter how well Rex performs, there will not be any temptation on the part of the coaching staff to commit to him long term.
8. Roy Helu -- I was tempted to leave all running backs off of this list. In the NFL, there are few positions that are as replaceable as running backs. I think that holds true for the Redskins as well, except when you consider that in recent years, we have actually found the bottom of the replacement barrel. No offense to Keiland Williams or Quinton Ganther, but when you are relying on guys like this to anchor your ground game, you might reconsider just how irreplaceable your top running back is. It's not like we are Green Bay, with no shortage of young, powerful runners. For us, Roy Helu's value is great due to the combination of the draft spot investment, the year of development and the results on the field. He was multi-faceted out of the backfield for us, proving adept at catching passes as well as running with power behind the line. His ability to make a cut and get upfield is ideal for our scheme and speed is always irreplaceable in and of itself. As much as I hate to put a running back on a list of irreplaceable players, at this point of our offseason, I am putting Helu in the top ten.
9. Chris Chester -- Look, this list is officially approaching "depressing" territory. We have more exciting players than Chester and we have players with more talent that Chester, but currently, most of our players are full of upside and potential. Chester is manning a crucial guard position on our offensive line and is one of only two current offensive linemen that I would prefer to start next season with--Trent Williams being the second. That's right...between the draft and free agency, I am looking for three new starters on our offensive line (I prefer the draft). Nobody is going to confuse Chris Chester with Russ Grimm or any other All-Pro guard, but he is solid, he started and played in all 16 games in 2011 and he seemed to improve in our scheme as the season wore on. Most importantly, his presence allows us to pencil in a very serviceable starter on the line, allowing the Redskins to focus on upgrading three linemen and not four. As for the other guys we have on our offensive line depth chart, that is where I think they belong--on our depth chart. Kory Lichtensteiger and Will Montgomery would rank among the best backups along the line we have had in years and would provide some of the most valuable insurance we have had in case a rookie either gets injured or can't hack it.
10. DeAngelo Hall -- I honestly did not expect to put him on this list. I would sooner include him on a list of the most overrated players than the most irreplaceable, but that wouldn't fully take into account where this roster is right now. I can already hear the Football Outsiders stats being loaded up to volley at me (smutsboy, I am looking at you), but remember that part of this equation takes into account what we would be left with if Hall went down and/or out. I worry that if I throw out stats like the fact that Hall is in the top ten in passes defensed and in the top 20 in terms of combined tackles (according to NFL.com), they will be answered by more telling stats of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Let's also throw out there that he can be a big, pouting baby at times. Still, you have to have very athletic, wily players in your secondary and DeAngelo Hall--for all of his faults--gives us something we would miss if he were not on the field. He has above average hands, deceptive catchup speed and experience. Not that it should matter too much, but he is also a Redskins fan, and losing seems to get to him. I like that, even if he can also say and do boneheaded things that infuriate his fellow fans.