The Washington Redskins risked scrutiny by claiming controversial linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers. The decision also revealed some of their internal thinking about the future at inside linebacker.
Foster’s former teammate at the University of Alabama is the best candidate for help and hope.
Shaun Dion Hamilton started the Redskins previous two games ahead of second-leading tackler Zach Brown. The 2018 sixth-round pick likely completes the hat trick in Washington’s crucial road game at the Tennessee Titans Saturday.
When Hamilton made his starting lineup debut against the Giants in Week 14, head coach Jay Gruden chalked up the decision partly because Brown missed practice time with an illness. Whether a timely excuse or not at the time, Gruden moved on without the need for an explanation beyond liking what he sees from the rookie.
"I think we're going to do it similar,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Wednesday of the ILB rotation. “I think we're going to use all of them. I know that not everybody is going to be happy about that, but I think Shaun Dion has done enough to show that can play in the NFL.”
Play and start are two different things, of course. Based on how Washington used its starters this season, the gulf is dramatic.
Mason Foster, the Redskins’ leading tackler, has played on 98.12 percent of all defensive snaps this season. Brown wasn’t far behind before the recent change (45 of 116 snaps the prior two weeks), though he often sat in obvious passing downs.
Hamilton didn’t receive his first defensive snap until Week 12. The 6-foot, 230-pounder then played on 48 percent of the defensive plays combined against the Giants and Jaguars. That percentage likely eclipses 50 if not for a shoulder injury in the 40-16 loss to New York. He finished with eight tackles against the Giants. Hamilton was credited four tackles and a half-sack at Jacksonville.
“This is going good,” Hamilton told NBC Sports Washington of the recent starts. “Gives me a little bit more confidence, have a feel for the game.”
Hamilton’s feel for the game attracted the Redskins despite the linebacker’s final season at Alabama ending with a broken kneecap. The injury dropped Hamilton down draft boards and limited his offseason work with Washington. Yet the two-time collegiate national champion won his way onto the Week 1 roster. Practice and patience paid off.
“We love the way he's progressed through training camp, OTA's, training camp and now,” Gruden said of Hamilton. “The most important thing with him is getting his legs under him after the injury at Alabama. He's very smart and instinctual and he's made a pretty good impact for us.”
The immediate impact of the change isn’t the primary issue. Focus on the timing and perhaps most of all, the future.
Though Brown led the Redskins in tackles last season, they searched for a replacement early in free agency. When targets including ex-Cowboy Anthony Hitchens signed elsewhere, Washington circled back with Brown. The sides agreed to a 3-year, $24 million contract.
Based on the contract structure, the Redskins can move on this offseason for a $3.0 million cap hit in 2019 and $1.5 in 2020. Same for the final year of Mason Foster’s 2-year, $4.3 million contract should recent comments lead to changes. Reuben Foster, a 2017 first-round pick by San Francisco, may never play for Washington.
Brown’s primary impact comes in run defense. That’s where the Redskins struggles showed most of the second half of the season.
Washington held opponents to 105 or fewer rushing yards in each of its initial seven games. Over the next five games, teams averaged 134.4 yards on the ground.
The switch to Hamilton shouldn’t automatically put blame on Brown. “He's certainly not getting pushed around so (I) can't understand the hate he's getting,” Pro Football Focus analyst Trey Cunningham told NBC Sports Washington. Still, it’s hard not recognizing some correlation. Gruden offered a rotational spin.
“I think the substitution pattern, using them all, it keeps them fresh,” the coach said Wednesday. “You give each of them a package they can really dominate in their mind and feel good about it and they can play fast and be fresh."
NFL game pace didn’t feel appreciably fast to the instinctive Hamilton despite weeks of watching. He put in the work.
“Linebacker is the very first position I ever played. Been playing it my whole life, every year. Years and years of film. The more and more football I’m around, the instinctive, smarter (I become). Knowing where the ball is going,” Hamilton told NBC Sports Washington.
With a playoff spot at stake, Hamilton said his only playing thoughts center on the immediate task.
“Taking it one week at a time,” he said when asked about his future role. “That’s way over my head. Right now it’s just about Tennessee.”
That’s also the case for the Redskins organization, but part of the job involves looking ahead. With Hamilton’s insertion into the starting lineup, they are getting a head start.
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