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The 5 O'Clock Club: Pre-season position battles - Inside Linebacker edition

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Inside Linebacker may be the very best position battle in Redskins Training camp this year.

Not only is it unclear who the starters will be, but the quality of the players competing for backup/special teams roles is interesting. There are some players on the squad who aren’t well-known to fans; guys who haven’t been featured in news articles or blogs, but who have a history of playing tough. Injuries have derailed a few of them, and the Redskins are likely to come out of camp this year with the best linebacking corps it has fielded since before London Fletcher retired.

Last season, Will Compton & Mason Foster played together as the starting inside linebackers, with Su’a Cravens coming in as a ‘nickel-backer’.

There was a lot of criticism from fans that the ILB duo -- and Compton, in particular -- were too slow, and tackled too poorly, and a number of people argued that Cravens was being used incorrectly by then-defensive coordinator, Joe Barry.

The Redskins front office went out and signed Zach Brown from Buffalo, a high-profile free agent linebacker known for his speed and tackling prowes

“Great!” many people thought... start Zach Brown and sit Will Compton, and the defense improves. The problem is that Will Compton is the guy on defense with the green dot on the back of his helmet. That means that he’s the one the coaches are talking to; it’s his responsibility to get the defense lined up. Zach Brown has never had that responsibility before, so it’s unclear what the plan is going forward.

Who, exactly, will be the starting inside linebackers in 2018? Clearly, Zach Brown will be one of them, but will he be paired with Foster or Compton?

And, with Su’a Cravens moving to safety, what will the defense look like in nickel & dime packages? Will Cravens move up in certain situations and play the position he played last year, or will Greg Manusky use a different player in that spot on passing downs in favor of keeping Cravens in his safety position?

It seems a foregone conclusion that (barring injury) three linebackers on the final roster will be Brown, Foster & Compton.

The real questions are: how many other ILBs will the Redskins carry, and who will fill the 2 or 3 remaining spots? The answer is likely to rest on special teams play, and with only 8 ILBs in camp, whoever doesn’t make the final cut seems to have a good shot at being invited to join the practice squad.

Here’s a quick look at the current Redskins Inside Linebackers, according to the official Redskins depth chart:

Zach Brown

Originally drafted by the Titans in the second round of 2012, Brown played last year with the Buffalo Bills before signing with the Redskins this past March. Brown was slated to backup Reggie Ragland until Ragland tore his ACL during camp. Brown went on to have a Pro Bowl season, and parlayed that into another one-year deal that should pay him about $2.5m.

Mason Foster

Selected in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft by Tampa Bay, Foster was allowed to walk at the end of his rookie contract, having been hampered by injuries. He was signed and waived by the Bears in 2015, and his football career seemed to be over. However, when injuries late in the season put the Redskins in a bind, Scot McCloughan tapped Foster, who signed with the Redskins at the end of September. By 2016, Keenan Robinson had been allowed to walk, and Foster took over a starting role.

Will Compton

An undrafted free agent in 2013, Compton is the kind of guy you love to root for. Not extremely athletic, but smart and dedicated. Most fans are happy to see him on the team, but less thrilled about seeing him on the field as a starter. Most Redskins fans would like to see him move to a backup role with the team, but -- as mentioned above — Compton is the ‘quarterback’ of the defense. We’ll see if that changes in 2017.

Martrell Spaight

Taken in the 5th round of the 2015 draft, Spaight suffered a concussion in his first game. The Redskins eventually put him on Injured Reserve, ending his rookie season, and opening a roster spot for Mason Foster. Last year he appeared in 14 games, recording 28 tackles and securing one interception. Spaight plays special teams, but will be under pressure to improve his play to retain his roster spot.

Josh Harvey-Clemons

A college safety who is projected to play special teams and linebacker for the Redskins, this 7th round pick is considered by many to have a shot at making the team at a position with a relatively thin depth chart.

In a recent article from Cadillactica, we got this report on Josh:

His pure athleticism is really going to be his advantage. He's just got such a big frame and really long arms to help get a hand on guys, but he's also flexible and able to run down the field in coverage. He's also a pretty heavy hitter. When he's running downhill to tackle someone, he won't let up or slow down, he's going to make sure he comes crashing into someone.

One thing that he'll need to work on is his angles. It's really kind of strange because his first year of playing at Louisville it wasn't really an issue, but then in his second year, it was something that you would start to notice. He would take a bad angle on a running back and it would inevitably lead to poor/missed tackles. There were times where there would be a gain of 15 or so yards, but it could have been just a 5 yard gain had Josh taken the right angle. Another thing is he'll sometimes panic when in coverage if he thinks he's been beaten. Instead of just trusting his size/athleticism he'll start to grab on receivers and get penalized.

Zach Vigil

Fans may be sleeping on Zach Vigil, who was claimed off of waivers last season from the Dolphins, and was on the Redskins roster for two regular season games. A third-year player, Vigil was undrafted in 2015, but won a spot on the Dolphins roster that year, and got decent playing time, primarily on special teams, until he was injured in his second year.

Though Zach Vigil enters his third NFL season, this summer marks his first training camp with the Washington Redskins. The inside linebacker joined the team in December 2016 after being claimed off of waivers from the Miami Dolphins.

The 6-foot-2, 238-pounder was added to the Redskins' roster to fill Houston Bates’ role after he was sidelined with a torn ACL. Now that Bates has been released, Vigil has an even greater opportunity to impress coaches and compete for a spot this season.

Fox Sports had a report on Vigil when he was claimed off waivers back in December:

The signing is a high upside move, but it seems unlikely that Vigil will make much of an impact [in 2016].

Back in 2015, Vigil was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Dolphins. He had played his college ball at Utah State where he put up some solid numbers. In the 2015 offseason, he earned a job with the Dolphins thanks to his impressive play at linebacker. The team was relatively weak at the position, and Vigil showed that he could be a depth and special teams guy for them.

Over the course of his two seasons with the Dolphins, Vigil played in 23 games and recorded eight tackles. He missed the first half of the 2016 season due to a back injury, and he never regained his role with the team.

For now, Vigil will likely take over Bates’ role on special teams. He has experience and solid tackling ability. Vigil also is likely to serve as a depth linebacker. Overall, this seems like a decent move by the Redskins. They quickly replaced Bates and got a player with some upside.

Nico Marley

JP Finlay wrote a very positive article about Nico Marley recently.

An average football play last just a few seconds, and success or failure gets determined by a series of flashes, where players fly around the field like violent chess pieces. One of those flashes came Monday, when, during 11v11 drills, undrafted rookie linebacker Nico Marley crashed down to the line of scrimmage, exploding into an offensive lineman, and thwarting a run play.

It was the kind of collision that happens thoughout the NFL, throughout training camps, but rarely by somebody with Marley's size.

He keeps making plays in Richmond during Redskins training camp. Just like he did during minicamp, and OTAs, and rookie camp. Just like he did in college.

Jay Gruden has noticed.

"You watch him at Tulane, he made almost every tackle. Then we brought him in here, said, ‘Let’s just bring this guy in for a workout for the rookie OTAs.’ Then at the rookie OTAs, he made almost every tackle and had two interceptions and a forced fumble," the Redskins head coach said of Marley. "I said if anybody deserves a chance to crack the roster, it’s somebody who’s that productive. So we brought him in here and he really hasn’t disappointed us, man."

In four seasons for the Green Wave, Marley appeared in 49 career games and collected 319 tackles (200 solo), 50.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, six passes defensed and four interceptions.

During his senior season in 2016, Marley led Tulane’s defense with 88 tackles along with three sacks, three fumbles forced, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

From CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When it comes to football, Marley flies to the ball and has a nose for turnovers. The problem, however, is size.

Listed at 5-foot-8, 200 lbs., Marley is noticeably small for a linebacker. His father Rohan Marley, who played in college at Miami, suggested his son should play in nickel situations. His coach at Tulane regrets not playing Nico more on special teams, where his speed would make up for his size and he could show his playmaking ability.

Pete Robertson

Linebacker Pete Robertson sensed that, at some point in his career, he would join the Washington Redskins. In his Longview, Tex., home town, it’s become a rite of passage into the NFL. Washington drafted Robertson’s god-brother, Malcolm Kelly, in 2008, then Robert Henson in 2009, and his cousin, five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, in 2010.

Before he received the tryout last December that led to a reserve/futures contract a week later, Robertson was dealing with the ripple effects of a severe back injury that nearly ended his career before it started. While training for the NFL draft process in 2016, Robertson, 24, was carted out of the gym because of a herniated disc during a dead lift workout with resistance bands. His spine was caved in for so long that it pinched nerves, shutting off Robertson’s entire left leg.

Robertson finished sixth in the country in sacks as a junior at Texas Tech, just a year before this freak accident, he went undrafted because of the injury.

Following a successful rookie minicamp with the Seattle Seahawks that led to a contract, Robertson was among the first wave of cuts during training camp last summer.

Robertson: “I knew right there after this workout that if they signed me, I’mma put my all into everything. I’mma give it my all. It’s why I’m working out with Trent every single day, doing extra [workouts] every single day. I wanna be in the NFL just because I wanna be great, at the end of the day. I want people to remember my name after I leave their team or perform for them.”

Ryan Anderson

Picked in the second round of this year’s draft, Anderson was a star on the suffocating Crimson Tide defense. He played outside linebacker for Alabama, but some analysts are projecting him to play inside in the NFL. In a post-draft interview, Ryan quipped that he was a professional, being paid to play now, and that he would play where the coaches tell him to play.

At this point, it is unclear whether Anderson will play ILB, OLB, or a bit of both. In one press conference shortly after Anderson was drafted, Jay Gruden expressed surprise that it was a question, saying that Anderson was talented at setting the edge in the run game, and that Gruden considered him an outside player.

James Dorsett recently published an article questioning Anderson’s athleticism, and had this to say:

I sincerely want to see Ryan Anderson have a highly successful career in the NFL. For the sake of the Redskins' pass rush, their defense and for the team as a whole, I can honestly say that I would much rather be wrong about Anderson than I would like to be right about him. I truly hope that I am wrong.

And there is good reason to believe that he may have a productive career. He was dominant in high school and was one of the highest ranked recruits at his position going into college. He enjoyed terrific junior and senior seasons at one of the very best college football programs in the history of the sport. And as others have discussed at great length, he plays with a mean streak and an intensity that you simply do not find in most players. But for all of the virtual ink that has been spilled to sing his praises, somebody needed to address his shortcomings, as well.

His production at Alabama has been both exaggerated and overrated to at least some degree.

He was one of the worst athletes in the 2017 draft; and in my opinion, there are probably at least 15 guys that the Redskins should have selected instead of him with their second-round pick.

Few players that fit his athletic profile have found success in the pros. That matters, because we've seen athletes that look a lot like him before and most of them have not lived up to expectations.

Ryan Anderson is also not only one of the least agile and explosive edge rushers or linebackers in the league, he is probably, at the very least on a pound-per-pound basis, one of the worst overall athletes in the entire NFL. I think most people knew that he was a poor athlete, but I truly do not believe that the vast majority of the general football watching public knew that it was quite to this extent.

At different points in the season, the Redskins carried either 5 or 6 inside linebackers last year. Most likely, there will be 5 inside linebackers on the final 53 this season, though with the flexibility of Cravens and (potentially) Ryan Anderson, it’s possible that the Redskins might enter the season with as few as 4 guys.

Tell us what you think:

  1. How many ILBs will be on the final roster?
  2. Who makes the cut?
  3. Who starts at ILB in the opener against the Eagles?
  4. What position will Ryan Anderson play this season?


Which defensive player will have the green dot on his helmet against the Eagles on 10 September?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Will Compton
    (72 votes)
  • 22%
    Zach Brown
    (25 votes)
  • 14%
    Mason Foster
    (16 votes)
113 votes total Vote Now