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Redskins Position Outlook: Linebackers make plenty of tackles, but few big plays

Redskins Position Outlook: Linebackers make plenty of tackles, but few big plays

Over the next few weeks, JP Finlay and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2016, break down the current personnel situation and evaluate the unit's outlook for 2017. We’re starting things off with a look at the running backs.

Inside Linebackers

Starters: Will Compton, Mason Foster

Backups: Terence Garvin, Martrell Spaight, Su'a Cravens

Free Agents: Terence Garvin, Will Compton (restricted)

Injured/Reserve: Steven Daniels

Rewind: Foster ranked first and Compton second in total tackles for the Redskins defense in 2016. Foster played in all 16 games for the Washington defense, and Compton played in 15 games. They form a duo of inteligent and capable players, perhaps hindered by the troubles of the defensive line in front of them.

Compton was hindered late in the year with a number of injuries, but Foster played well to close the season, particularly against the Giants in Week 17 when he registered 17 tackles. Coaches respect both linebackers, and players do too, as Compton was voted defensive captain. 

There is plenty to like from Compton and Foster, but in 2016, neither player delivered many big, high impact plays. While inside linebacker is not a position of need for the 'Skins, it would not be a shock if Scot McCloughan again adds to the group via the draft. In the previous two drafts, the Redskins grabbed a middle linebacker, Martrell Spaight in 2015 and Steven Daniels in 2016. 

Spaight works hard, but wasn't overly impressive in a spot start for Compton. Daniels didn't play last season, hitting the IR in training camp. Su'a Cravens also played a significant amount at linebacker in 2016, flashing big play ability, but the plan for the second-year man is to move to safety. Terence Garvin was mostly a special teams player, though most of his fellow linebackers appreciated his comedic ways in the locker room.

Fast forward: It seems likely Compton returns to the Redskins in 2017 as he's a restricted free agent, but there have been whispers that other teams might consider going after the linebacker and compensating Washington. Assuming Compton returns, he and Foster would again be the interior 'backers in 2017 unless a high round draft pick emerges. 

An improved line will help the entire defense, but particularly Compton. In 29 starts the last two seasons, Compton has produced two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Watch Compton play, and it's clear he often knows the direction of the play coming his way. Better play in front of him might lead to more turnover opportunities.

Cravens' move to safety will mean more Foster in nickel coverage. It will also be interesting to see what changes Greg Manusky makes as the new Redskins defensive coordinator. Manusky has repeatedly said he likes the players on his defense, just wants them playing with more unity and agression. 

<<<LOOKING AT REDSKINS DRAFT PROSPECTS>>>

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When asked about the defensive decline, DJ Swearinger gives response 'they want' him to give

When asked about the defensive decline, DJ Swearinger gives response 'they want' him to give

A frequent question Redskins players have had to face this past month is, in some form or another, "What's wrong with the defense, and what's changed?"

Washington's defense was, for the most part, effective and at times dominant during the team's 6-3 start.

But in this losing streak that extended to four games after the disgraceful performance against the Giants, the unit has been a trainwreck on top of a dumpster fire. 

DJ Swearinger was the latest 'Skin to be asked the increasingly common question in the FedEx Field locker room postgame. His response was noteworthy.

"We just didn't execute, we just didn't get the job done," he said. "That's the answer they want me to give."

Swearinger attracts some of the largest media crowds when he speaks because he's passionate and never holds back with his quotes.

However, some recent comments from No. 36 about the Redskins' practice habits caught Jay Gruden's attention to the point where the coach explained in one of his weekly pressers he'd prefer the safety keep those thoughts in-house.

So, is Gruden or another coach or front office person the "they" that Swearinger referred to following the Giants blowout? You'd have to assume so.

Regardless, it's obvious that he wanted to say more, but instead, he kept his full, unfiltered opinion to himself — this time. If things continue to trend downward and his frustration continues to trend upward, though, don't expect him to keep giving the answers "they want."

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Basketball court to the NFL: Inside quarterback Josh Johnson's wild week with Redskins

Basketball court to the NFL: Inside quarterback Josh Johnson's wild week with Redskins

FEDEX FIELD — A week ago, Josh Johnson was playing in a charity basketball tournament in his hometown of Oakland. Five-on-five, full court, twenty-minute halves and four games, if you want to know the truth. His squad won the title. 

That’s a pretty good day. It had been a while since Johnson played that much ball. He couldn’t have realized what the next week had in store. Signed and cut by 11 NFL teams, now 32 years old and with his hopes of another chance remote at best, circumstances changed dramatically for Johnson. 

Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy broke his leg in last Monday’s game at Philadelphia. By Tuesday night Johnson was on a red-eye flight to Washington. By Wednesday, he was at practice. By Sunday he was on the field in the second half, replacing ineffective starter Mark Sanchez with Washington down 40-0 to the New York Giants. 

“It’s really something I’ve been doing the last six years. I’ve been cut so much, been picked up one time the day of a game,” Johnson said. “The poise was there within myself because I just had to remember what I did before. Everybody probably would have expected me to go out and not do anything so I really had nothing to lose.”

At this point the 6-7 Redskins probably have nothing to lose, either. Their top two quarterbacks (Alex Smith, McCoy) are lost to broken legs, the offensive line is decimated by injuries again, the defense is fading. Johnson’s presence is the perfect metaphor as a once-promising season slips away during a four-game losing streak. 

Sanchez, who signed himself just last month after Smith’s gruesome leg injury, struggled in the pocket against New York and doesn’t have the mobility to escape when protection breaks down. 

At 5:31 of the third quarter, coach Jay Gruden turned to Johnson. He still has the athleticism to escape trouble and his legs can stress a defense. Gruden used to tease Johnson about his ugly spirals when they were together with the Cincinnati Bengals. Gruden was the offensive coordinator then, Johnson just a reserve.  

It’s fair to point out that Johnson was playing during garbage time against a 4-8 team that had long ago gave up on its own season and was ahead 40-0 and ready to kill the clock and get out of Washington with a win. But he did complete 11 of 16 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. He was not sacked. He ran for 45 yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. 

“The guy has been around the league for a while and has been with Jay before. To see him put that on tape was great,” Redskins right tackle Morgan Moses said. “He told us he’d communicate and make sure we’re on the same page - even if we’ve got to go on the same snap count. If we’ve got to dummy it down and make it simple for guys to get the ball out, that’s what it takes.”

That Johnson produced as much as he did was shocking given that he hardly knew anyone’s name other than tight end Vernon Davis, who he played with in San Francisco, running back Adrian Peterson, tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Jamison Crowder.  Johnson ran scout team reps in practice as the Redskins scrambled to get Sanchez ready to start. He did not get his own package of plays.  

Teammates didn’t know much about Johnson, either. He spent all week holed up in meetings trying to learn the playbook as fast as he could. It’s an impossible task. He even took to playing Madden football to learn his own teammates’ names. He laughed that it came to that, but wasn’t surprised. You do what you have to when given an unexpected chance.

“Felt fun. It felt fun. I was just really embracing the opportunity,” Johnson said. “When you don’t get to play this game and you love this game then you really appreciate every opportunity that you get. And so I just wanted to enjoy it. And that’s how I’m taking it every day. Come to work. Practice. Weight room. Whatever. Just enjoy it. I’m 32. I’m 32. Just enjoy it.   

And Johnson ultimately gave Gruden what he needed in that moment. The final score was still a brutal 40-16 after a pair of two-point conversions. But Johnson will start next Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars - though it is probably too late for the Redskins who look less and less competitive every week.

"The bright spot we had to today was Josh Johnson,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “The rest of it, it is what it is."

For some players, that’s enough to start thinking about the offseason. For Johnson, cut by the Giants at the end of training camp in 2017, the Houston Texans last December, the Oakland Raiders, his hometown team, in May, every minute in the NFL is a gift. He could be back in Oakland, working with cousin Marshawn Lynch and their Family1st Foundation, which helps provide, mentoring, skills, sports and business opportunities and training to kids in inner-city Oakland and beyond. 

Johnson was at a local hospital visiting one of his foundation’s kids, who had a broken leg, when he got the call from the Redskins. He was ready for a chance no one saw coming except himself. Maybe that lesson will stick with the kids back home, too.   

“We’re just trying to do what we do for our community and then spread it to other communities,” Johnson said. “We grew up like a lot of these inner-city kids. If we can be an example of how to keep pushing, stay motivated within yourself, be able to take the good with the bad - that’s how life is. It’s overcoming.”

 

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