I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong, and I just may be wrong with my concerns over Washington’s linebackers heading into this season.
I have been a bit critical of the team’s linebacking corps all offseason. I praised the drafting of Kentucky star Jamin Davis, but had hoped we’d address the position as well in free agency with a difference-maker at the position.
My concern grew throughout OTA and mini-camp, and even came to a head over the weekend, when I tweeted my two main remaining areas of concern for this team were linebacker and tight end.
After a long night’s rest last evening, and an hour of reflection this morning, I may have come to peace with our current situation at linebacker.
Jamin Davis 6’3” 236
Cole Holcomb 6’1” 240
Jon Bostic 6’1” 245
Khaleke Hudson 6’0” 220
Shaka Toney 6’2” 238
David Mayo 6’2” 240
Jared Norris 6’1” 238
Jordan Kunaszyk 6’3” 235
Justin Phillips 6’0” 235
Joe Walker 6’2” 236
As you can see, there is good depth for a positional group I expect to keep six players. However my previous concern was the starting quality of our top three.
As you know, and as I have mentioned numerous times in the past, we are in sub-packages almost 70% of the time, meaning if there are on average 80 defensive snaps per game, that we only have all three linebackers on the field for 24 or so plays.
With 50 plays or greater coming with two off-the-ball linebackers on the field, we have some really good, athletic options to see playing time in these situations.
The MIKE should be on the field for 100% of the teams defensive snaps. Early indications in training camp (albeit just one day), is that rookie Jamin Davis, the most athletic specimen in our corps, is seeing first team reps at MIKE. This echoes what was being reported during OTA’s and mini-camp.
This is an IDEAL situation for Del Rio and the defense.
There could be some situations where offensive personnel dictates who the WILL is, but overall, just like the MIKE, our weakside linebacker should be a 95% plus snaps per game player. As of this writing, Cole Holcomb is the guy we are seeing get the snaps at WILL, but as I have written in the past, Jack Del Rio likes his MIKE and WILL to be almost interchangeable in their roles and responsibilities - so we could see Davis and Holcomb both line up in the middle. We also say this dynamic play out in Carolina where Ron Rivera had Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis - who would often flip-flop based on offensive personnel and coverage. This is also what the Bucs do with Devin White and Lavonte David - two of the best in the game today.
This is where things get interesting. Traditionally, in a base 4-3, the SAM is your run-stuffer who is often asked to stack a linebacker or blocking back at the point of attack. However, in today’s spread offensive attack, with a lot of 11 personnel and the frequent use of inside and outside zone and set-up cutbacks, the SAM, who use to be a team’s “Heavy”, is now required to be more versatile and zone disciplined in his reads and fills. Heavy RPO schemes, and simply put; with more teams passing on first and ten, teams often prefer to have a more versatile off-the-ball SAM, who can plug a hole, but also open the hips and get underneath a route in the quick passing game. In certain defenses, they are also used to rush the passer.
If Jon Bostic is going to see significant time with the team this season, SAM may be where we play him. But, there is also the option to play Holcomb as a SAM in base looks, with a player like Hudson flanking Davis as the WILL or play the uber-athletic rookie Shaka Toney in this role.
The Buffalo Nickel:
The Buffalo Nickel in Jack Del Rio’s scheme is an interesting player, and that player may change based on the team Washington is playing that given week.
Say, for example, that the Football Team is playing the Ravens or Titans (the only two teams to have over 500 rushing attempts in 2020) - Del Rio may choose to play a more traditional linebacker in the Buffalo Nickel role for that week’s defensive lineup. Now obviously that can fluctuate as the game goes on, but a good lineup for these games could be:
- MIKE - Jamin Davis
- WILL - Cole Holcomb
- SAM: Jon Bostic/Shaka Toney
- Buffalo Nickel (when out of base): Khaleke Hudson
Now, let’s say we are playing a game against Kansas City or Atlanta - we may want to employ a more versatile WILL and Buffalo Nickel.
- MIKE: Jamin Davis
- WILL: Khaleke Hudson
- SAM: Cole Holcomb
- Buffalo Nickel (when out of base): Kam Curl
The 4-3 Under:
This is something I have been talking about a lot since we drafted Shaka Toney in April.
I have compared Toney, who is an undersized EDGE at 6’2” 238 pounds, to Bruce Irvin when he came out of West Virginia. If you remember, Irvin had his greatest NFL success in that hybrid SAM role in Seattle where he would line up off-the-ball on the edge and rush the passer. He also played the run well during his time in the Pacific Northwest from the SAM position.
With Toney’s unique skillset and athleticism, I feel he can play situationally in the type of role.
Here is what a a 4-3 Under alignment could look like:
- NT: Daron Payne
- 3-Tech: Matt Ioannidis
- 5-Tech: Jonathan Allen
- Wide 9: Chase Young/Montez Sweat
- MIKE: Jamin Davis
- WILL: Cole Holcomb
- SAM (walked up): Shaka Toney
*This alignment can also be used when either Young or Sweat need a breather.
In this ever evolving NFL, it’s important to have versatile players to match up with innovative offenses. I believe Washington has that in our revamped linebacking corps; and with the utilization of the Buffalo Nickel as part of our 50+ defensive snaps per game.
We may not have a Devin White and Lavonte David or a Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, but we do have a Jamin Davis, Cole Holcomb, Khaleke Hudson, Shaka Toney and Kam Curl!
It is for these reasons, that I feel much better than I did just a week ago about our young, talented linebacking corps, and the use of the Buffalo Nickel.