While Junior Galette's injury before training camp rearranged expectations, the linebacker group remained steady throughout the defense thanks to a breakout year from Trent Murphy and increased production from Will Compton and Mason Foster.
As the Redskins head into the offseason following back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1991-92, Redskins.com will provide position-by-position reflections from the 2016 squad.
Up next: linebackers.
Review Of The UnitThe linebacker groups received devastating news and a sense of déjà vu just prior to training camp when outside linebacker Junior Galette tore his Achilles for the second consecutive year. For a defense expecting to see more production in the pass rush entering the season, this was a blow, forcing the units to quickly re-adjust.
That prompted Trent Murphy to shift back to outside linebacker after a brief stint trying defensive end in order to help fill the void left by Galette's expected production. And besides a couple of small injuries, the unit remained healthy and consistent, helping to stabilize a defense that rotated through its share of replacements, called in after several fell prey to Injured Reserve.
Murphy was indeed a nice surprise for the Redskins, collecting nine sacks, nearly twice as many as his first two seasons combined. He kept pace with Ryan Kerrigan, who tallied 11 sacks and started in every game, extending his streak to 96 consecutive starts, the second-longest active streak among active NFL linebackers.
Each had at least a two-sack game this season, but their biggest highlight came working together during the Redskins' victory over the Eagles in December, when Kerrigan stripped quarterback Carson Wentz and Murphy jumped on the loose ball to seal the game in the final minute.
Second-year linebacker Preston Smith swapped in frequently but struggled to build off his stellar rookie year in which he recorded eight sacks. The Mississippi State product's biggest game came against quarterback Sam Bradford and the Vikings, recording two sacks and his first career interception to help thwart Minnesota's late comeback attempt.
The versatility between the three allowed each to get more rest during games, keeping them better prepared for the latter half of the season.
"I think it's allowed all of us to stay fresher as the season has gone on, not just in game, but also for the following weeks," Kerrigan said, "because we're taking some reps off each other and I think that's a good thing and hopefully that will continue to pay off."
On the interior, Mason Foster and Will Compton were the leading tacklers on the team, 124 and 106, respectively, holding down the middle of the field. When Compton, one of the team's captains and vocal leaders, suffered a hip injury against the Eagles late in the year, backup Martrell Spaight acquitted himself nicely against the Packers. He took over relaying the calls to the defense and proved to be a capable fill-in throughout the season.
The unit also received a boost from rookie Su'a Cravens, who used his first year to work with the inside linebackers to better learn the defense. He mainly played during passing situations as a nickel and dime linebacker, but showed a great ability to play in the box, part of the strong safety background he acquired at USC.
"It definitely helps just to know the entire landscape of the defense," Cravens said of playing linebacker, "seeing what everybody knows or what has to do and their responsibilities and as a DB knowing your run fits and everybody else's run fits, it plugs one less hole."
Contributors Houston Bates and Terence Garvin played sparingly on defense but remained strong in their special team roles, becoming leaders when veterans such as Niles Paul left the team due to injury.
What's Next For The GroupGarvin is the team's only unrestricted free agent linebacker this offseason that was on the active roster this year, while Compton is the only restricted free agent, meaning he can negotiate a deal with any NFL team, and if he accepts an offer sheet, the Redskins have five days to match what is offered.
Compton said after the final game of the season that he would like, and expects, to return.
"I'd love to be here," he said. "I just had meetings and I feel like they're going to love to have me back. In my eyes, I'm coming back next year and again I just need to get healthy now and get ready to put a good product on the field for them next year and I'll be the same leader I have been."
Foster, who recorded a career-high 17 total tackles (15 solo), will return for the final year of his contract and likely build on his rapport with Compton, a duo that gelled together at the end of 2015.
There is also the likelihood that the team signs Galette to another one-year contract, hoping that he can reach the field for the first time in nearly three years and provide another spark amongst a growing pass-rushing unit.
A foundation of Murphy, who should be able to build off his breakout season, Kerrigan and Smith could provide one of the best units in the league.
"I think we might have been more optimistic than we should have been this year, but I think rightfully so," Compton said of the season. "Injuries took place and some things didn't go the way we wanted to, we didn't execute like we wanted to, but I felt like the opportunities were there and again you got to go back, you got to correct those opportunities that we missed out on and again you got to live in those details, but I think we're on the right track. I think with the GM that we have with Scot [McCloughan], it wasn't going to be a quick fix and I think we'll have a lot to be excited about next year."
2016 Redskins Season In Review: