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Previewing 2020 free agents: Linebacker

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With the switch to the 4-3 defense and Del Rio’s desire for speed on defense, the Redskins may need to go shopping for linebackers

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Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

There is a lot of potential worry and confusion at the linebacker corps at the moment, as the Redskins adjust their base system from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3.

Right away, Kerrigan and Sweat change from linebackers to defensive ends.

Of the linebackers remaining from the 2019 roster, questions and uncertainty abound.

Jon Bostic was a one-year veteran band-aid for the team in 2019. He is slated to hit free agency on 18 March. Will the journeyman linebacker continue his journey, moving to another LB-needy team in 2020, or will Rivera & Co. try to retain him as a cheap and reliable veteran who can help hold together a young linebacking group during a potentially difficult transition? He has, after all, played both Mike and Sam LB positions in 4-3 defenses with the Bears, Patriots and Lions.

I have no real strong feeling one way or the other, but I lean towards the idea that the Redskins will try to retain him simply because there will be enough roster holes to worry about, and Bostic has proven to be reliable on a very low cost contract.

Reuben Foster continues to appear ‘snakebit’, as recent reports have indicated the the young linebacker with a troubled career is just now getting feeling back in his toes, 8 months after the injury. The extent of his ACL, MCL, LCL, and nerve damage was more significant than most people thought it was. While there has been no definitive news, there is every possibility that Foster could miss some or all of the off-season training, and may not be ready for the 2020 regular season. In short, based on what is publicly known right now, the Redskins can’t count on Foster to play this season.

Shaun Dion Hamilton enters his third season with only 516 career defensive snaps (Jon Bostic by contrast, played 1,031 in 2019 alone). SDH was Washington’s highest graded ILB according to PFF, earning an overall grade of 74.9 (the other ‘Skins linebackers scored lower than 57), with a very impressive 89.7 coverage grade. Our own Mark Tyler is a fan of SDH, saying that he “may have the best recognition and reaction skills of all our linebackers.” The fact remains that Hamilton is being evaluated on a small sample size in the NFL, and his college career was marred by several injuries. It will be difficult to go into the 2020 season confident that Hamilton can be relied upon to be healthy and to produce at a high level, though his pedigree as a Crimson Tide starter argues that he has high level skills.

Cole Holcomb got a lot of playing time for a rookie, largely as a result of the injury to Reuben Foster. In fact, Holcomb out-snapped SDH, with 718 defensive snaps, and a further 242 special teams snaps. In the same article in which Mark Tyler praised SDH (Week 16), he had this to say about Holcomb:

The rookie linebacker has regressed a bit over his last 4 games. Sunday’s game may have been one of his worst efforts all season. The potential is there but he’s got a LOT of growing to do in the offseason.

PFF agreed with Mark’s assessment of Holcomb’s Week 16 effort, giving him an overall defensive grade of 32.4 for that late-season game against the Giants. For the season, the rookie was inconsistent; he was generally good in run defense, and accumulated 93 tackles in just over 700 snaps, but he was not impressive in coverage, giving up 42 receptions on 49 targets at an average of nearly 10 yards per reception.

Ryan Anderson has been an outside linebacker for the Redskins since being drafted. He could very well see himself moved up to defensive end with Sweat and Kerrigan, but some have suggested that he could stay with the linebackers in the new alignment, or play a bit of both. In discussing the Redskins’ switch to a 4-3 base defense, Fansided, last month, called Anderson a “‘tweener”:

The one player without an obvious position in this front would be Ryan Anderson. His best fit is as a 3-4 rush linebacker and is more of a tweener in a 4-3 alignment. That said, the team would still work to find his best fit, especially after he totaled 4.0 sacks and five forced fumbles this past season.

Josh Harvey-Clemons was largely invisible for the Redskins in 2019, Active for just 9 games, and appearing only on special teams, he seems to be a non-factor in the defensive considerations. I personally predicted that JHC would be cut at the end of last year’s training camp, and I’m surprised he survived the ‘19 season. I don’t expect him to survive the regime change. For the second year in a row, I expect him to be cut at the end of the pre-season.


Click here to read: An early look at the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020

Click here for more Redskins 2020 Free Agency coverage and profiles


With a 4-3 defense typically devoting 6 roster spots to the linebacker position (5 at the very least), the Redskins depth chart looks pitifully thin.

This is not a position group that is going to be solved by the draft alone. The Redskins will need to be active in free agency, and will likely need to get at least one high quality linebacker and perhaps a solid backup as well. They probably can’t get what they need by bargain-bin shopping.

I posted an article early this week asking whether fans would like to see career Cowboy Sean Lee in burgundy and gold this season. The response was overwhelmingly opposed to it, primarily based on his age and injury history, but there may well be a spot for guy like Lee on a one or two year contract, with the expectation that he will play 500-600 snaps this season. He managed 16 games last season playing over 600 defensive snaps plus some on special teams, and he was pretty consistent, collecting 87 total tackles.

But Lee would be a rotational linebacker at this point. The Redskins need one or two guys to step up and play 900+ snaps each. Bostic could be one of those guys, but while he is a serviceable linebacker, there are probably other, better options likely to be available in March that the team should look at.

There are some interesting veteran free agent linebackers expected to be available this off-season. Today I’ll shine the light briefly on five players:

  • Corey Littleton
  • Joe Schobert
  • Blake Martinez
  • Danny Trevathan
  • Wesley Woodyard

Summary Chart

I prepared a quick summary chart for handy comparison of these five players.

For reference, here is the top of the list of NFL inside linebackers, in order of annual average salary, as per OverTheCap:


Click here to read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Markus Bailey, LB, Purdue

Click here to read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Jordyn Brooks, LB, Texas Tech

Click here to read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma

Click here to read: Would you like to see Sean Lee in a Redskins uniform in 2020?


Free Agent Frenzy

Free agency begins in earnest on 16 March when teams can begin negotiating with players’ agents, and players can sign new contracts from 4pm on 18 March.

Cory Littleton, Rams, age 26

Los Angeles Rams v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Del Rio wants sideline to sideline speed on defense. Linebackers that can’t run and cover are simply too one-dimensional to handle the multi-pronged attacks of modern offenses.

At 6-3, 228 pounds, Littleton is just what the doctor ordered. He is athletic enough to cover tight ends and running backs, and with the eighth most tackles in the NFL last year at 134, he isn’t a liability versus the run.

Littleton finished 2019 with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. He is probably the premier veteran free agent linebacker available.

But his services likely won’t come cheap.

Littleton went undrafted in 2016, but signed a 3-year UDFA contract with the Rams, who retained his rights in 2019 with a restricted free agent tender of just over $3m.

He’s likely to more than triple that contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

NFL Trade Rumors has him listed as the 32nd overall free agent (and the top inside linebacker) on their 2020 top-100 veteran free agents list.

PFF ranks Littleton 13th in overall defense among linebackers, with a defensive grade of 78.9. He ranks 10th in coverage (82.3) and first in tackling (91.6).

There’s no doubt that the athletic 26-year-old linebacker would provide an instant upgrade to Jack Del Rio’s new defense. He would be a weapon to prevent teams from routinely throwing to their tight ends for 7-10 yard gains over the middle of the field, and when he hits a ball-carrier, the guy usually stays hit.

The Rams have spent big on free agents in recent seasons. The result is that they are tight on cap space. As a highly productive player on a low-cost contract, Littleton was part of what allowed Les Snead to try to buy the talent for a SuperBowl championship. With Jared Goff’s cap hit jumping to $30m+ in 2020, the Rams front office is going to have to make some tough roster decisions.

Littleton has played as the Mike, or middle linebacker, for the Rams at times, but, as a smaller sized player for the position, is probably more natural at the weak side (Will) position that he started out in with LA.

SIgning Cory Littleton would represent a commitment to youth, to athleticism, to talent... and to paying big bucks at the linebacker position — not something the Redskins have been known for, but there’s a new sheriff and deputy in town, and they were both linebackers in their playing days.

Don’t be surprised to see Ron RIvera and Jack Del Rio go in search of more talent for the middle of the defense. If they go looking in free agency, then Littleton is probably the best guy to look at first.

The Redskins need to draft a quality young linebacker in April, but they need a quality veteran as well. If that veteran turns out to be Cory Littleton, he should be a cornerstone player in Jack Del Rio’s defense for the next four to five seasons.

Littleton won’t come cheap, but in his case, I imagine the Redskins would get what they pay for.

Joe Schobert, Browns, age 26

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

If you look at the summary chart above, where I listed stats for all five players highlighted in this article, you might notice that Littleton and Schoebert have eerily similar stats for both 2019 and for their 4-year careers. In some ways — most notably career tackles — Schobert has arguably been more productive.

He’s also got a more classic linebacker build, standing 6’1”, 245 pounds, compared to Littleton’s relatively wiry 6’3”, 228 pounds.

Schobert was a 4th round pick of the Browns in 2016, and, aside from missing 3 games in 2018 with a hamstring injury, has been remarkably consistent for Cleveland over the past three seasons.

The Browns don’t have any particular cap issues, and, as the starting middle linebacker, Schobert is a key defensive starter. While he would be a fine alternative to Cory Littleton, I doubt whether Schobert will actually make it to free agency. I fully expect the Browns to give him a new contract sometime in the next three or four weeks.

The only real wildcard is the fact that Cleveland has just re-tooled both the front office and coaching staff, but I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be motivated to re-sign him.

Still, if Cleveland lets Schobert reach free agency in March, I think he’d make an ideal consolation prize if the Redskins couldn’t win the Cory Littleton sweepstakes.

Blake Martinez, Packers, age 26

Washington Redskins v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

NFL Draft Rumors ranks Joe Schobert as the their 64th ranked free agent for 2020; they rank Blake Martinez just ahead of him at #63.

I have reversed them because of the fact that Schobert is more like Cory Littleton — more of a coverage linebacker who can play the run.

Blake Martinez is more of a run-stopper and (to some extent) pass rusher, and less of a coverage linebacker. Martinez looks to be a significantly upgraded version of the Redskins’ 2019 linebacker Jon Bostic.

In other words, Martinez can call the defense and supply strong run support, but doesn’t add as much to the pass defense as would Littleton or Schobert.

In my view, this makes Martinez a less ideal fit than the other two, though there is very little that separates them athletically.

Danny Trevathan, Bears/Broncos, age 29

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

When Danny Trevathan hit free agency four years ago, I thought he would be a good player for the Redskins, who were looking at starting Will Compton and Perry Riley in 2016.

Even then, Trevathan wasn’t as good as Littleton, Schobert or Martinez are today.

At the age of 29, Trevathan’s appeal is limited, but then, the same is probably true of his contract demands. Trevathan would represent a mid-cost option, and probably only 2-3 years of play as part of the new 4-3 defense. Still, there are reasons to think about him as a fit for the Redskins in 2020.

Consider this from The Athletic:

If the team wants to save a little bit of money but still add a starter, Danny Trevathan might be a [good] value. Trevathan is stronger against the run but still has some ability to drop into coverage. He also has plenty of familiarity with the Redskins coaching staff, having been drafted by the Broncos in Del Rio’s first year in Denver. Trevathan could fill in at both Sam and Mike linebacker spots and could comfortably call the defense from the Mike position. He’ll be 30 by the time the season starts, which means he won’t cost as much as someone like Littleton, but he could still be looking for one final big contract.

I personally feel like the Redskins have moved past the point where Trevathan is the guy they need.

An arm injury in Week 10 ended his 2019 season. In his last full 16-game season (2018) he wasn’t really any more productive than Jon Bostic. If the team is looking for a steady and reliable veteran linebacker, I’d probably prefer to see them bring Bostic back; he knows his teammates; he played pretty competently in ‘19, and he won’t need a lot of zeroes in his contract.

Wesley Woodyard, Titans/Broncos, age 33

Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Woodyard is another former Bronco that I wanted the Redskins to sign when he hit free agency, though he got there two years earlier than Trevathan and was a much better player. But that was a long time ago (2014). Woodyard is now a 14-year veteran who doesn’t seem to have much tread left on the tires.

Honestly, I think it’s likely time for Woodyard to retire, though he was highly productive and put up two of the best seasons of his career as recently as 2017-18.

But consider his defensive snap counts for the past three seasons:

  • 2017 - 1,153
  • 2018 - 714
  • 2019 - 416

He’s really just a part-time player now, and maybe not even that any more.

I’ll let The Athletic put forward the argument for signing Wesley Woodyard as a veteran free agent in 2020:

Like Trevathan, Woodyard is a former Del Rio player who would provide plenty of experience and veteran leadership to a young group. During an interview before the championship round of playoff games, Del Rio even mentioned Woodyard by name: “I was just talking about a story, a guy that will be playing this week, Wesley Woodyard, when I arrived in Denver in 2012, I was told that he was just a special teams guy and that I shouldn’t worry about him. He wasn’t going to amount to much. I said, ‘We’ll see. We are going to give everyone an opportunity to compete.’ We tried to build up the fundamentals and the confidence to see where they would go. … He has obviously gone on and taken advantage of his opportunity.” At 33, Woodyard isn’t the long term answer, but he could offer some guidance to the younger linebackers on the roster.

If I was placing bets, I would put my money on Woodyard retiring. Still, the chance to reunite with his old coach might be enough to bring the former Bronco and Titan to DC where he could spend a year helping teach the young guys how a real pro does things.

Poll

How do you rate the Redskins linebacker situation for 2020 as it stands today?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    4 = outstanding
    (6 votes)
  • 8%
    3 = good
    (68 votes)
  • 62%
    2 = there is cause for concern
    (500 votes)
  • 26%
    1 = it’s in bad shape
    (213 votes)
  • 1%
    0 = there’s not a player in the unit worth keeping
    (11 votes)
798 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Of the players highlighted in this article, when you take into consideration history, talent, age, likely contract, and so on, which one would you most want the Redskins front office to prioritize if they signed a veteran free agent LB this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Cory Littleton
    (431 votes)
  • 27%
    Joe Schobert
    (234 votes)
  • 7%
    Blake Martinez
    (65 votes)
  • 3%
    Danny Trevathan
    (28 votes)
  • 1%
    Wesley Woodyard
    (9 votes)
  • 8%
    I wouldn’t sign any of them
    (73 votes)
840 votes total Vote Now