Bullock on the linebackers
Mark Bullock wrote an analysis of the Commanders’ linebacking corps two months ago. I thought his introduction was really useful, so I thought I’d reprint it here along with an endorsement to subscribe to his service - CLICK HERE to visit Bullock’s Film Room.
So, here’s what Mark Bullock had to say in mid-January:
It should be no surprise to any Washington fan that the linebacker group was the weak link on defense this season. Yes, Washington invested a first-round pick in Jamin Davis, which we’ll certainly get to, but the team just had zero depth at the position to handle any sort of injury trouble. When Davis proved he wasn’t ready and Bostic went down injured, it was left to Holcomb to hold the group together quite literally by himself. The team decided to implement a 5-1-5 package with five defensive lineman and five defensive backs just so Holcomb was the only linebacker on the field. Kam Curl and Landon Collins being effective in the box helped that package too, but it really was a case of Washington doing everything it could to not play linebackers, because it didn’t have any.
Washington really mismanaged this group throughout the year. The first mistake was playing rookie Jamin Davis at the Mike (middle) linebacker spot, as opposed to the Will (weak side) linebacker role that suits his skill set far more. After the draft, I said I always saw Davis as a Will, but I understood that with his athletic upside, if they could get him to work at the Mike spot, it would make the pick more valuable and leave the team set with Davis and Holcomb as the two main linebackers going forward.
As it turned out, Davis couldn’t handle the responsibilities of playing the Mike and Washington was too slow to realize that experiment wasn’t going to work. It was clear in pre-season that Davis was constantly a step or two slow in diagnosing plays and reacting to what he was seeing in front of him. That left Bostic as the Mike and when he went down, Holcomb had to try and take over. Holcomb did a solid job, but Rivera pointed out that he’s much better on the outside where he doesn’t have the extra responsibility of making calls. When David Mayo played the Mike spot late in the season, the impact it had on the defense was clear to see. Mayo was able to make calls and adjustments and still fulfill his responsibilities quickly, which enabled Holcomb to play with less mental baggage and play faster too.
At the end of the season, Holcomb stated he feels he could step up and take on the added responsibilities of the Mike position, which would fill a huge need for Washington. However, Rivera clearly stated he sees him more of an outside guy, playing the Sam (strong side) or Will spots. Holcomb at the Sam and Davis at the Will could be a solid combination for Washington, but they’d need to find an experienced Mike capable of making all the calls to work in between them. That is, without any doubt, Washington’s biggest defensive need this offseason, but finding that kind of guy is much easier said than done....
More recently, Riggo’s Rag did a linebacker review and the analysis was a bit more poetic than Bullock’s:
One of the most maddening things about Ron Rivera’s tenure as Washington Commanders coach has been his inability to make any progress with the linebacking corps. Despite the fact that Rivera and his defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were both quality professional linebackers themselves, they have allowed this one position to remain the team’s biggest dumpster fire.
It has been so bad that in each of Rivera’s two season, Washington was reduced to essentially starting a guy off the street in meaningful late-season games. In 2020, they were left with no replacement when weakside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was injured, and ended up starting their playoff game with Mychal Kendricks, who had been out of football less than a month before.
Again, late in 2021, when injury and COVID combined to wreak havoc on the roster, Washington started Milo Eifler in a crucial game against Dallas, causing Commander fans everywhere to ask – “Who?” It is the only time I have ever seen a network broadcast not have a photo of the player when scrolling through the starters.
Jonathan Eig of Riggo’s Rag then went on to detail his thoughts on potential draft targets:
I suspect Devin Lloyd will be off the board at [#11], but Nakobe Dean may well be available. Dean makes all the sense in the world....
Brain Asamoah...only makes sense if Jamin Davis can play in the middle.
If he can’t,...in the second round of the draft, Chad Muma is a steady, reliable player who can line up anywhere, including the middle. He offers the flexibility....
If it’s me, I’m targeting Muma in the second. That’s the safest bet, and I don’t need to double down on risky moves at linebacker.
Personally, I think the Commanders will be using their first-round pick on a quarterback, whether in trade for a veteran or in April’s draft. I don’t think the team has the luxury of picking a linebacker earlier than the 2nd round.
With clear needs at free safety and linebacker, I think the team needs to use veteran free agency to find a starter at (at least) one of those two positions. If they get only one clear starter, then they need to get at least a serviceable player at the other position (I’m talking linebacker & free safety here) ahead of the draft so they aren’t forced into over-drafting a player to plug a roster hole.
The difficulty in trying to preview the Commanders’ options at any position (other than QB) in veteran free agency is that everything depends on the approach the team takes to the QB position.
The latest estimate from OverTheCap for Washington’s available cap space in 2022 is around $33.3m. That sounds pretty healthy, and it is actually the 9th highest in the NFL per OTC, but it could disappear in a hurry if Washington trades for a top-tier veteran signal caller.
Now that the NFL salary cap has officially been set, we know exactly how much space the @Commanders have to operate with as free agency approaches next week.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) March 8, 2022
Washington is $33.3M under the salary cap, 9th best among the NFL 32 clubs.
Acquiring a guy with an expensive contract like Watson ($35m fully guaranteed), Cousins ($35m), Rodgers ($27.5m), Garoppolo ($25.6m), Wilson ($24m), or Wentz ($22m), would not only eat up draft capital in trade, but would also cut deep into the team’s available 2022 cap space.
GM Martin Mayhew said during his interview at the Combine a week ago that the front office has not extended offers to players like JD McKissic, Cam Sims or Bobby McCain, but has communicated to those players that the team would like to have them back for the ‘22 season. Why hasn’t the team tried to sign them? Mayhew didn’t say it in as many words, but the implication seems to be that the team won’t know how much it can spend until it sorts out its plan at QB — or at least until it has eliminated the possibility if acquiring an expensive veteran.
If the team were to trade for, say, Deshaun Watson, then it would be necessary to restructure some existing contracts to have any cap space at all. On the other hand, if the team commits to drafting a quarterback (the Commanders currently hold the 11th pick in the draft), then there would be more than enough cap space to sign a handful of high-impact free agents.
With that in mind, I’d like to profile a few veteran off the ball linebackers who could potentially be targeted by the Commanders front office. We don’t know yet whether the team will be shopping at the premium end of the market or the budget end, so I’ll try to look at a bit of both.
De’Vondre Campbell, Packers
At 6’4”, 232 pounds, Campbell, who will be 29 years old in July, is similar in height & weight to Jamin Davis. and perhaps a half-step slower in straight line speed, though the 7th year linebacker can probably make up for that with his experience and anticipation.
Campbell was drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 draft out of Minnesota by the Atlanta Falcons. At the end of his rookie contract, he went to Arizona for a season before signing with the Packers in 2021, which turned out to be his best season as a pro. He accumulated career highs in tackles, QB hits and interceptions; he had 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 2 interceptions. He had an incredible AV (approximate value) score of 14, and PFF gave him a career-high grade of 86.0 just a year after he had gotten a career low grade of 49.0.
He also has a history of staying healthy — playing in 16 games per season every year since 2017, and averaging around 900 snaps per season.
Chasing Campbell this off-season would probably be an example of “buying high” — grabbing a player just after he’s put up a career year at the age of 28. Campbell cost the Packers $2m on a one-year “prove it” deal after getting $6m from the Cardinals in 2020. I imagine that Campbell will be looking for a 3 or 4-year deal to optimize his earnings following his outstanding ‘21 season in which he was named first-team All Pro.
You might wonder why the Packers would let him walk in free agency. The reason is the same as why they are rumored to be ready to release Za’Darius Smith; OverTheCap estimates the Packers to have the 2nd-worst cap situation in the NFL at the moment, at approximately $26m over the cap, with about one week to get compliant.
If Washington wants to sign Campbell, the front office will probably need to put together a strong offer. Campbell has 86 career starts as an off-the-ball linebacker, and he is looking for the biggest (and possibly last) payday of his career.
Don’ta Hightower, Patriots
Hightower, who will turn 32 years old this week, was drafted 23 spots after Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft, but he has had a much more successful career than the former Baylor and Washington QB. Here’s a quick summary from NBC Sports:
Based strictly on resume, there’s no [other free agent LB] who comes even close to matching Hightower’s accomplishments. Even if he’s only made two Pro Bowls (2016, 2019), Hightower has served as the nerve center of three Super Bowl-winning defenses for the Patriots.
But what’s left in the tank?
After opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hightower returned to play 15 games for New England but appeared in only 67 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, his lowest usage since his rookie year in 2012.
Hightower is a skilled inside linebacker who could provide veteran leadership and bring championship pedigree to a room that is likely to be otherwise very young in 2022. Returning for a tenth season with a team like the Commanders could be a nice career-cap for a player who spent his entire career with the Patriots, and a one-year deal might be all the Washington coaches need to give them time to draft and develop some more young talent at the position.
Hightower carried cap hits of $9m, $11m, and $12m in his last three active seasons. While it’s possible that he might not be looking for an increase against his 2021 compensation, any team that wants to convince him not only to forgo retirement, but to leave Bill Belichick’s Patriots as well, will probably need to pony up some real cash.
Josey Jewell, Broncos
Jewell played only 82 snaps in 2021 before tearing his pectoral muscle. The good news is that, because the injury happened early last season, Jewell should be ready to go this summer for training camp.
The Broncos front office somehow managed to arrive at a 2022 off-season in which three of the Broncos’ starting linebackers are currently set to become unrestricted free agents: Jewell, Alexander Johnson, and Kenny Young.
I actually profiled Johnson in a different article that I published about two week ago. Here’s an excerpt from that article:
It seems like a genuine possibility that the [new] coaching staff may be ready to let Johnson continue his NFL career in another city as they retool for the future. Josey Jewell, the team’s 4th round pick in 2018, is also poised for free agency in March, and the Broncos may not prioritize Johnson on the roster going forward.
Jewell, who is younger than Johnson, seems like the more natural choice for the Broncos to retain; however, the team just drafted Baron Browning in the 3rd round of last year’s draft, and Denver’s cap and QB situations are very similar to those of the Commanders, but Denver seems to be the favorite potential landing spot for Aaron Rodgers if he decides to force his way out of Green Bay. In short, the Broncos may or may not be able to pay what it will take to keep Jewell in the fold.
At 28 years old, Jewell is younger than Campbell, Hightower, and his current teammate Alexander Johnson. The 2018 4th rounder’s stock shouldn’t be hurt much by the injury. Jewell missed only one game in his first 3 NFL seasons. In 2020, his last full season, Jewell had 113 tackles, 5 QB hits, 2 sacks, and 4 passes defended. PFF gave him grades of 68.4 and 68.1 in 2019 & 2020, with solid grades of 73.2 and 74.9 for tackling.
At 6’1” and 234 pounds, Jewell is about the same size as Cole Holcomb, but isn’t as fast as Holcomb. A LB group of Jewell at MIKE, with Holcomb at SAM and Jamin Davis at WILL seems to offer the potential for a solid corps that could play together for three or four seasons while still leaving the opportunity to upgrade or build depth through the draft.
Elandon Roberts, Dolphins
If Washington’s front office finds itself with an expensive veteran quarterback and limited cap space, one budget option is Denver’s Alexander Johnson, whom I mentioned above, but a potentially lower cost option could be to sign ILB Elandon Roberts from the Dolphins.
The soon-to-be 28 year old Roberts was drafted in the 6th round of the 2016 draft by the Patriots, and he played between 20% and 56% of the defensive snaps during the 4 years of his rookie contract.
When he reached free agency in 2020, he went to Miami to play for Brian Flores, who had been his position coach with the Patriots. In Miami, Roberts played in 13 games in 2020 (going on IR in late December), and 17 games in 2021, seeing about 50% of the defensive snaps over 2 seasons.
Elandon Roberts would likely be a competent but unspectacular player in the Commanders defense. This is what the DolphinsWire had to say about him just over a week ago:
The 27-year-old isn’t the NFL’s prototypical linebacker for today’s game, as he’s not great in coverage, but throughout his career, he’s been respectable against the run. In 2021, he set a career-high in tackles with 83. However, he also had 19 missed tackles, which was tied for the seventh-most in the NFL. If you’re not going to provide solid coverage, you have to be finishing those tackles. [note from BiB: Robert had a high missed tackle rate in 2 years at Miami of around 18%, but he never went above 9% in his four years in New England]
Miami did a great job limiting Roberts’ opportunities in coverage to hide that weakness. He was only targeted 29 times, allowing 13 completions for a 91 passer rating. The Dolphins instead opted to play a guy like Duke Riley in those scenarios, who has a bit more to offer.
Roberts would likely be a slight upgrade to David Mayo, who is currently on the Commanders roster, but Roberts’ chief attribute would be his cap hit. Roberts earned $2.1m and $2.7m in the previous two seasons. Washington would likely be able to add him to the roster at a cost of $3m per season or less. He would be capable of starting, but would be a 2-down linebacker who is probably more of an NFL backup in 2022.
Signing a player like Roberts in free agency would probably signal the intent to draft and develop a rookie on Day 2 or early on Day 3 in April’s draft.
Foye Oluokun, Falcons
One guy I wanted to highlight is 26-year-old Foye Oluokun from the Atlanta Falcons. The only reason I didn’t is because I think the Falcons will probably re-sign him. At 6’2” and 215 pounds, he is undersized for a linebacker, but he’s played 64 games in his 4 years in the NFL, and he has put up some impressive statistics. He had 117 tackles for the Falcons defense in 2020, followed by an incredible 192 tackles in 2021. His performance last season also included 4 tackles for loss, 7 QB hits, 2 sacks and 2 interceptions. He also has 5 forced fumbles in the past two seasons.
The Falcons are facing a tough cap situation — they are currently projected by OverTheCap to be $7m over the cap, but that’s not an insurmountable number. They’ve got 4 players with $20m+ cap hits (including $48.6m for Matt Ryan), so they can clear a lot of space in a hurry if the front office wants to make it happen.
PFF estimates Oluokun’s free agent contract at 3 years, $22.5 million ($7.5M per year, $14 million total guaranteed). Washington could make that work, with a low first-year cap hit and an ‘out’ after the 2023 season.
When you consider everything — including likely contract $ — what approach to linebacker do you think the Commanders should prioritize in March?
This poll is closed
The answer is in the draft, not free agency. The team needs to target a potential starter in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Go big or go home - sign De’vondre Campbell from the Packers
10-yr-vet & 3 time super bowl champ Don’ta Hightower from the Patriots
Young, talented and returning from injury - Josey Jewell from the Broncos
One year "prove it" deal after injury and off-the-field issues - Alexander Johnson from the Broncos
Save money - slap a band-aid on it with Elandon Roberts from the Dolphins
Go with youth and potential if the Falcons don’t retain the undersized tackling machine, Foye Oluokun
I want to sign a free agent linebacker, but not any of these guys
We’ve got David Mayo under contract; we’re all set