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Ranking the NFC East, 2019: (inside) linebackers

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Hogs Haven looks at all four teams in the division in an effort to identify the best and the weakest of the NFC East

The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.

Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups and head coaches in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2018. This year, we’re going to look at the division again, but we’re gonna try to ramp things up a bit by adding some film review to some of the position group reviews.


Click here to read previous Ranking the NFC East articles


This article has 4 sections:

  1. A very brief positional overview of where each of the 4 teams is at with the linebacker position.
  2. A simple film review of 5 of the top linebackers in the NFC East this season: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Nigel Bradham, Alec Ogletree, and Jon Bostic
  3. A list of the top of the depth chart (5-6 players) for each of the 4 teams in the division.
  4. Some poll questions focused on identifying the best linebacker in the division, as well as the teams with the strongest and weakest LB position group in the division.

A note on terminology before we start

Before we jump into the review, let me say a quick word about the labeling of the linebacker group as (inside) linebackers. The Redskins putatively run a base 3-4 defensive scheme, meaning that there are four total linebackers, including two outside linebackers who typically excel at rushing the passer, but are also asked to defend the run (often by ‘sealing’ the outside), or drop into pass coverage.

Not every team in the division plays the same scheme. The Cowboys, for example, run a base 4-3 scheme, in which three linebackers provide the second layer of defense. They rush the passer only as part of a blitz. They provide strong run support and are asked to offer pass coverage primarily against tight ends and running backs. The fans of a team like the Cowboys would think in terms of a middle linebacker (MIKE), strong side LB (SAM), and weak side LB (WILL); those fans would, if they talked about ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ backers at all, think of the WILL and SAM as outside linebackers, not inside. They would consider the label of “inside linebackers” to their LB group as a whole to be uneducated and misplaced

Misplaced it may be. Uneducated it is not.

I have a very minor struggle in this series of articles to use terminology that works for all four teams and their fans, given that the teams run differing defensive schemes. For example, the article that included Ryan Kerrigan focused on “edge rushers” rather than “outside linebackers” in an effort to provide a bit of apple-to-apple comparison, no matter how imperfect. Comparing the Redskins’ Kerrigan to the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence was not ideal, but it seemed a reasonable compromise. In this article, the focus is on the full 3-man LB group on the field in a base 4-3 (such as the Cowboys run), or the 2 “inside” linebackers on the field in a base 3-4 scheme (such as that which the Redskins employ).

The terms inside linebacker, ILB, linebacker, LB, and possibly others may be used interchangeably, and the readers’ indulgence is appreciated in the effort to avoid lengthy and, in my opinion, unnecessary repeated caveats about the scheme differences throughout the article.


Positional overview

I’ll start this overview of the linebacker position in the NFC East by saying that I think the Cowboys have the best (inside) linebacking group in the division, and I don’t really think it’s close. In this article, we chose to highlight two Cowboys — Jalon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. If #50, Sean Lee, played for any other team in the division, he would have been hands-down the guy I would have chosen to feature. It’s only his injury history that keeps Sean Lee from being consistently included in the discussion of the all-time great linebackers of the NFL. In the years ahead, Vander Esch, Smith and Lee may come to be code for great NFL linebacker play in this decade.

The Redskins have used the draft, the waiver wire and veteran free agency to keep the ILB position stocked, but — aside from, perhaps, London Fletcher, who retired at the end of the ‘13 season — the Redskins have struggled to rise above a mediocre talent level with this position group. When you consider that the current defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, is a former Redskins linebacker himself, this seems... surprising.

The latest effort to upgrade the Redskins unit involved grabbing Reuben Foster off of waivers, but he tore up his knee on the first day of off-season activities, and finished his Redskins contract before it ever really started. The other major change came in veteran free agency, where the Redskins signed Jon Bostic from the Steelers, letting Zach Brown go to the Eagles, who signed Brown for about a third of the salary that he would have earned with the ‘Skins. Bostic is playing for his 6th team in 7 seasons; Brown, his 4th team in 8 seasons.

The fact that the Eagles signed Zach Brown is perhaps a sign of the lack of quality depth they have at the linebacker position, on a team that is otherwise pretty deep. Aside from Brown and Nigel Bradham, the Eagles have Paul Worrilow, the 29-year-old former Falcon and Lion who missed all of last season in Philly with a torn ACL and who signed a vet minimum deal for 2019, Kamu Grugier-Hill, a spot starter in 2018, picked up on waivers from New England, Nathan Gerry, a 5th round pick from 2017, LJ Fort, a 5-year NFL journeyman, and a few more street and college free agents. This appears, to my eye, to be the weakest link on a pretty strong roster.

Growing up, as I did, in the latter part of the 20th century, I associate the New York Giants with great linebacker play. Lawrence Taylor is probably the division rival that I’ve most loved and hated to watch in my lifetime. I loved to watch him play against the Cowboys and the Eagles (and even the Cardinals back in the day), but hated to see him against the Redskins. Carl Banks, of course, is just too nice a guy to ever feel hatred for, but he was a fierce rival back in the day as well. By contrast, the likely Giants ILB group of Alec Ogletree, B.J. Goodson, Tae Davis, Ryan Connelly and Nathan Stupar seems like more evidence of the long road ahead for Giants fans as Dave Gettleman seeks to remake the roster in the twilight of the Eli Manning era Giants. They’re not bad, by any means, but they’re perhaps as far from LT and Carl Banks as the current Redskins receivers are from Monk, Clark and Sanders.

The film room - Frye’s Film breakdown

In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Joshua Frye, who has volunteered to help me with this series.

As a Skins fan, Joshua says that he grew up with a team that wasn’t winning on the field, and that this lack of success made him look for something other than Superbowls to keep him connected. He focused on the draft. So, even from a young age, Josh watched college football, doing his best to evaluate players, and he read extensively — books written by coaches and personnel evaluators. Josh says that he would love to become a professional scout someday.

Let’s see what Joshua thinks about some of the NFC East’s top linebackers. He will look at 5 players, in order:

  • Leighton Vander Esch
  • Jaylon Smith
  • Nigel Bradham
  • Alec Ogletree
  • John Bostic

Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys

LVE 1

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Vander Esch does a great job following Wentz’s eyes and playing the route by Ertz and Tate. Wentz shouldn’t have thrown this to Ertz, and Vander Esch takes advantage.


Ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Here Vander Esch reads the screen and uses his athleticism to get around Kelce and Brooks to stop this screen for a loss of 4 yards.

Vander Esch outperformed expectations from a lot of people this past year. Some said he was a reach in round 1, yet, despite not starting for 1/4 of the games, he still got 100 tackles, which shows how much help he is run support and how good his instincts are.


Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Jaylon Smith recognizes the play quickly and uses his speed to close the gap and cut off Barkley for a loss of 3.


ignore...

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

On this play Smith is blitzing and utilizes the good stunt to get behind Joe Staley to come up with a sack fumble.


Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

This is another example of how fast Jaylon Smith is to the ball. He recognizes the play and breaks to the outside with Melvin Gordon. He’s able to use his hands and athleticism to beat the block attempt without losing much momentum in gaining ground on running back to stop him for no gain.

With Vander Esch and Smith the Cowboys have two great linebackers, and, considering that NFL defenses play a lot of sub packages, having two guys with this level of talent allows their coaches to feel better about stopping the run while defending the pass even in those packages. Jaylon isn’t as thick as Vander Esch, but he is the better athlete, and both have tremendous instincts, allowing them to make big plays all over the field for the Cowboys.


Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia Eagles

ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Bradham does a nice job at not biting on the end-around, and then coming down hill in a hurry to make the tackle for a loss.


Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Here we see Bradham blitzing through the right side of the Oline and chasing down Brock Osweiler for a sack. Bradham does a nice job at getting through the gap quickly.


ignore this...

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Here is another example of Bradham making a play against the run. This time, he notices that Smith is running a read option, and is filling in the gap left by Curry, who went after Hunt. Bradham does a nice job working through Fisher’s block to come up with the tackle for loss.

Bradham is another Linebacker in this division who is a liability in coverage due to his lack of speed and tendency to hesitate in coverage, but who makes plays with his physical presence when defending the run.


Alec Ogletree, New York Giants

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Ogletree is covering Lamar Miller on this wheel route. The linebacker gets a lot of criticism for his inconsistent play in covering RBs and TEs, but here he does a nice job at sticking with Miller and comes up with the interception.


ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

On this play Ogletree does a great job at extending his arms to keep Lewan off of his body, and then tosses him away to get into the backfield to make the tackle for loss.

Ogletree had a disappointing season last year when he was inconsistent, at best, in both the run and the pass. Despite having 5 interceptions last year, he was graded as the 8th worst player in coverage at his position by PFF. He missed 20 tackles in 2017 and close to the same number in 2018, which is why PFF ranks him as one of the least effective tacklers in the league.

Alec Ogletree came into the league with a lot of hype; some even considered him a future All-Pro type talent. He obviously hasn’t came close to that hype, but he provides the Giants with a reliable starter who doesn’t bust the salary cap.


John Bostic

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

On this play Bostic, playing for the Steelers, is blitzing in between Desmond Harrison and Darren Fells. Bitonio doesn’t pick up the stunting interior linemen, forcing Harrison to stay on the crashing interior linemen instead of picking up the blitz. With Tyrod Taylor having such a short drop, Chubb can’t transition from his play action on the QB’s right to reach Bostic or prevent the sack.


ignore this...

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Here Bostic does a nice job getting through traffic, first avoiding a block by a WR, and then absorbing and getting around Ronnie Stanley’s block to make the tackle.


nothing important here

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

In coverage, Bostic is known to struggle, but, here, not so much. Bostic is trailing and he knows he has help over the top. He gets his hand in position to create a contested catch for OJ Howard, and forces the incompletion.

When the Redskins cut Zach Brown, everyone knew there was a physical presence missing at ILB for them. Bostic is cut from the same cloth as Brown in terms of how they play the game. Both are inconsistent in coverage but makes plays up close, near the line of scrimmage, where they can blitz and play hard against the run.


A look at the top of the depth chart for each team

Of course, no position group consists of just one or two players. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.

Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the ones on the final 53 seem likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four positional groups.

Cowboys

  • Leighton Vander Esch
  • Jaylon Smith
  • Sean Lee
  • Chris Covington
  • Jalen Jelks

Eagles

  • Nigel Bradham
  • Zach Brown
  • Kamu Grugier-Hill
  • Nathan Gerry
  • L.J. Fort
  • Paul Worrilow

Giants

  • Alec Ogletree
  • B.J. Goodson
  • Ryan Connelly
  • Tae Davis
  • Nathan Stupar

Redskins

  • Mason Foster
  • Shaun Dion Hamilton
  • Jon Bostic
  • Josh Harvey Clemons
  • Cole Holcomb

Poll

Who is the best (inside) linebacker in the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Leighton Vander Esch
    (220 votes)
  • 20%
    Jaylon Smith
    (77 votes)
  • 14%
    Sean Lee
    (55 votes)
  • 5%
    Nigel Bradham
    (22 votes)
  • 0%
    Alec Ogletree
    (2 votes)
376 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the BEST (inside) linebacking group in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Cowboys
    (338 votes)
  • 0%
    Giants
    (0 votes)
  • 6%
    Eagles
    (24 votes)
  • 5%
    Redskins
    (23 votes)
385 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST (inside) linebacking group in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Cowboys
    (4 votes)
  • 55%
    Giants
    (217 votes)
  • 7%
    Eagles
    (31 votes)
  • 35%
    Redskins
    (139 votes)
391 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which Redskins inside linebacker will have the best season in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Mason Foster
    (50 votes)
  • 16%
    Jon Bostic
    (58 votes)
  • 58%
    Shaun Dion Hamilton
    (202 votes)
  • 2%
    Josh Harvey Clemons
    (7 votes)
  • 7%
    Cole Holcomb
    (26 votes)
343 votes total Vote Now