Dec 24, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears tackle Bobby Massie (70) and Washington Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (91) during the game at Soldier Field. The Redskins defeat the Bears 41-21. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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The Washington Redskins have a pretty solid group of edge rushers. Are they the best unit on the team’s defense.
Coming into the 2016 season, there was a lot of hope surrounding the Washington Redskins rush linebackers. Their starting duo was looking like a strong combo, while the depth was somewhat questionable. Still, there was young upside for the team, and they looked to have a strong unit.
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In 2016, that turned out to be true. The pass rushers were, for the most part, the lone bright spot on the team’s weak defense. They performed consistently week in and week out, and with a little extra help, they could be one of the better units in the NFL.
With all that said, it is time to individually grade the performance of the rush linebackers for the Redskins. Here is a look at the grades for each player.
Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins linebacker Houston Bates (96) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
One of the top special teams options for the Redskins in the past two seasons has been Houston Bates. The former undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech has played in 24 games over the course of his two year career, and has generally done relatively well for the team. However, things did not go as smoothly as usual this past season.
Bates was only able to notch a single tackle while playing in 14 games this past season. He barely saw action aside from special teams, despite the fact that the Redskins were really thin at the rush linebacker position. Bates logged only 23 total defensive snaps and really did not do much for the team at all. He does not offer much upside and considering his mediocre performance on special teams, Bates could be in trouble for the 2017 offseason.
Making matters worse, Bates tore his ACL before the final two games of the season. Bates could miss a good chunk of time, and it may leak over into the preparation for next season. If he cannot get on the field, then the Redskins may look to replace him, considering that he does not offer too much value anywhere else.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding Bates after the season, his grade has to fall. He definitely was the most underwhelming edge rusher for the team this year.
Jan 1, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) avoids the rush by Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith (94) during the second half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Over the first few weeks of the season, Smith struggled to get near opposing quarterbacks. It seemed like opposing teams had prepared more for Smith heading into their matchups, and that was part of the reason that he was not able to find success. However, as the season has gone along, he has gotten better each week.
Smith finally was able to get some get some results for his efforts in Weeks 6 and 7, when he officially picked up 1.5 sacks. It was clear that he was trying to capitalize on the performance of Ryan Kerrigan across from him, and that was smart on his part. To Smith’s credit, he has improved his tackling ability and run defense to become more than just a rotational rusher. That definitely bodes well for his future.
Well, in the second half of the season, Smith really showed what he was capable of doing. Smith’s signature performance came in Week 10 against the Vikings. In the contest, Smith notched two sacks and really showed his pass rushing skill set. He managed to total five sacks on the year, and also had an impressive field goal block on special teams.
Moving forward, Smith has a chance to be a quality player. His 2016 season was still a bit less than solid, but he looks like a solid rotational rusher moving forward for the team.
Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins defensive end Trent Murphy (93) sacks Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) in the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps none of the players on the Redskins team had a better season than Trent Murphy. In his third year, the pass rusher was pretty much an afterthought on the Redskins defense. He had never had more than 3.5 sacks in a season, and the team was planning on moving him to defensive end.
However, an injury to Junior Galette forced the Redskins to rethink their plans. Murphy was asked to lose weight and return to his outside linebacker position. The converted end was able to do it, though it was not easy, and the team has to be happy with his performance.
Murphy totaled a whopping eight sacks during the season and emerged as a big time playmaker. He used his strength to push tackles back into the quarterback, and the muscle he added for his move to defensive end really paid off for the team. In addition to his strength, Murphy still maintained his athleticism, and when paired with his motor, he became a true weapon.
Moving forward, the Redskins could probably consider Murphy as a starter for the team this season. Murphy played on about 61 percent of the team’s snaps, but that number could go up if he plays in more of a combo role next year. He could be one of the better players on the team’s defense in the upcoming years, and his unexpectedly solid performance deserves a high mark.
Dec 24, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (91) during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Redskins defeat the Bears 41-21. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Kerrigan may be one of the most valuable players on the Washington defense. In his sixth season with the team, Kerrigan was once again a Pro Bowl level player, and he put forth yet another great year.
To begin with, the Redskins star continued his streak of consecutive starts, moving it to 96 games. He has never missed a start since coming into the league, and that speaks to his work ethic. It also speaks to his resilience. Kerrigan dealt with an elbow injury late in the season, but he still played as much as he could. He rarely ever missed a play, and led the rush linebackers in snaps with 786 on the defensive side.
In addition to his reliability, Kerrigan continued to demonstrate his pass rushing prowess. Kerrigan notched 11 sacks during the season, and was able to steadily put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He had at least one sack in eight of nine games at one point, and if he had been fully healthy at the end of the year, he could have had more.
In short, Kerrigan is a great player. He just has the combination of drive and athleticism that players need to succeed in the league. He is arguably the top defensive player on the Redskins roster, though Josh Norman may have something to say about it. Kerrigan deserves a near perfect grade in 2016.
Dec 24, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears tackle Bobby Massie (70) and Washington Redskins defensive end Trent Murphy (93) in action during the game at Soldier Field. The Redskins defeat the Bears 41-21. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Overall Positional Grade
At the midseason point, I gave the rush linebackers a B+ grade. They were probably the top unit on the defense, and that certainly has not changed in 2016. The rush linebackers finished the season as the top group, and they definitely deserve at least an equal grade.
That said, the improvement of Smith coupled with the continued excellence of Kerrigan and Murphy means that the Redskins rushers deserve a bump up. They have a lot of upside moving forward, and adding one quality depth player to the unit could give them a chance to build a formidable pass rushing attack.
At the end of the day, there is not a better unit on the Redskins defense that the pass rushers. In fact, it may be hard to find a unit on the team that has outperformed the rush linebackers.