Over the past seven seasons we’ve enjoyed the luxury of knowing there was an ironman at the heart of the Redskins defense. From the end of the Joe Gibbs era, through Jim Zorn’s two year mantra of “staying medium” and onto Mike Shanahan’s changes in the defensive alignment, it was either London Fletcher or “London Fletcher & Co.” holding down the middle of the field for the Redskins defense.
Now the team will be auditioning for two new permanent fixtures at inside linebacker, and it’s good to know there has been a basic philosophical change in player development since Bruce Allen took over for Vinny Cerrato. Two fourth-round draft picks, Perry Riley (2010), and Keenan Robinson (2012) will be leading the charge to replace Fletchers perennial dominance.
The two-headed monster of Riley and Robinson may not have crept over many thresholds into becoming household names yet, but they’ve been cultivating their skills in Fletchers shadow all the while, preparing for this moment. What they already have in their innate set of skills turns out to be complimentary to one another; both having exceptional speed. With Riley’s approach being tailored for a north-south assault, Robinson can cover the field well from east to west, as a sideline to sideline predator.
The lesser known Robinson has had to deal with a learning curve that not many players could endure gracefully, and although he missed the entirety of the 2013 season due to injury, his mind has been in attendance throughout as his body recovers.
Despite Robinson’s slow rise in status it will be he and not Riley who calls signals for the defense next season. So while he’s set to be thrown directly into the fire, there is a small margin of error given the leadership of Barry Cofield and Ryan Clark. They too will be covering the middle of the field as the first and last lines of defense. Recent linebacker acquisition Darryl Sharpton, formerly of the Houston Texans, will fit nicely into the inside rotation as well.
Riley was brought along at a similar pace to what Robinson will be experiencing, as by his third season he had secured a starting position. Since then Riley has started every game for the last two season, and as his reps increased, he eventually earned the reward of a $13 million contract. This should be the year where things click for Riley. As a starter, he has averaged three sacks a season (a notable contribution for a Skins team who struggles to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks).
For Riley and Robinson to become household names, at least locally, their true rite-of-passage will likely come in week-three when the Redskins visit Philadelphia and face LeSean McCoy. If the Eagles offense starts to sputter during a game, it’s McCoy’s shiftiness and unparalleled field sense that in one play can be this team’s instant tune-up. Last season McCoy complimented two different quarterbacks in defeating the Redskins during their two annual match ups. If Robinson and Riley don’t size him up, and put him down, it’s not likely anyone else will.
Personnel wise, the Redskins entered this offseason in tenuous condition but were stellar in re-signing their own stock of free-agents. They also remained patient when acquiring new blood, which was a break from the norm (and by “norm” I mean decade of dissolution). This all leads to the belief that their culture is on the mend, but perhaps best of all was the show of faith in cultivating players from recent past drafts.
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