With training camp set to begin on July 26, Redskins.com previews the current state of the Redskins' roster, starting today with the team's inside linebackers.
Bringing the majority of the inside linebackers back was going to be a critical part for the Redskins defense to improve for 2018. Adding new pieces and only losing one key player to free agency, Washington now has more depth at the position to learn under the veterans.
Addition(s): Shaun Dion Hamilton (NFL Draft), Jerod Fernandez (College Free Agent)
Subtraction(s): Will Compton (Signed with Tennessee)
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
The biggest component to getting the defense back on track was re-signing free agent Zach Brown. The seventh-year veteran was entering a contract year at the conclusion of the 2017 season, where he led the Redskins in total tackles with 127.
After signing a multi-year extension with the team in March, Brown arrived at the team's minicamp ready to build off a successful season last year. With the North Carolina product coming off a campaign where he finished in the league's Top-10 for tackles back in the fold, competition of who will play beside him is taking place.
"I've finally got a place that I can call home," Brown said. "From Tennessee, to Buffalo, and now here, I can call this home now. So for me it's just great that I can grow with a group of guys, and a lot of them are back, and we've added a couple new pieces."
Eight-year veteran Mason Foster seems to be the favorite to start alongside Brown once again this season. After coming up with a career-high of 124 tackles in 2016, Foster was placed on Injured Reserve on Oct. 28 after dealing with a torn labrum since Week 2 last season.
His replacement, Martrell Spaight, had his best pro season by coming up with 75 tackles in 15 games in 2017. With the Little Rock, Ar., native being third on the team in tackles, it's hard for inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti to ignore his performance. While the competition for that spot is in order, Foster is confident that it is raising everyone's level of play.
"We have a good group of guys," Foster said. "Everybody is working hard. I'm definitely really excited. I know everybody says that, but I have a real good feeling about this group of people. You got good guys all across the board and I'm excited to get the pads on."
The inside linebackers group has depth with the addition of sixth-round pick Shaun Dion Hamilton and college free agent Jerod Fernandez. Although Hamilton is battling back from injury, he is known as a reliable tackler who can reach the ball carrier. He was tied for second on Alabama in total tackles with 40 in the eight games he played in.
Fernandez can provide valuable practice reps during training camp in addition to having the chance of making the final 53-man roster after leading NC State in tackles with 98 in his final collegiate season. Veterans Josh Harvey-Clemons and Zach Vigil also return as valuable depth pieces and look to make an impact in the rotation and on special teams.
Redskins fans got a glimpse of the potential that Harvey-Clemons has from switching from safety to linebacker, having a stellar performance in the final preseason game last season by coming up with an interception for a touchdown. Getting his opportunity during the regular season in Week 8 against the Cowboys, the Louisville product reached the ball carrier at least two times in five games.
Vigil is coming off his most productive season in the NFL, producing 59 tackles in just seven games. His single-season performance had more tackles than his previous three NFL seasons combined.
According to Olivadotti, Vigil's best attribute to the group is that he is talkative on and off the field. His ability to see what's going on and inform his teammates, Olivadotti said, has been a trait that has been helpful to the rest of his teammates.
"Zach is a guy that's going to communicate really well," Olivadotti said. "He's going to be a guy that guys trust and trust that voice that's coming to tell them where to go and what to do and that's huge to have."
WHAT TO WATCH:
What has helped the inside linebackers group improve this offseason is the willingness of the younger players to learn under the veteran likes of Brown and Foster. The fact that they are curious about the smallest details, Foster said, has translated into their enhanced performance in offseason workouts.
While the younger guys in the group have already shown improvement during offseason workouts, it will be interesting to see how this carries over into training camp.
Take a look at photos of Redskins players arriving for offseason workouts.
"I try to tell them to be a sponge," Foster said. "A lot of these guys are asking questions, writing down notes, staying extra to do whatever they can to get acclimated to the NFL game. It's pretty impressive. They're young guys, you could see them when they leave and go do something else, but they're here all the time. I see them when I'm leaving. I see them here early. It's pretty impressive. They're just willing to work and it shows."
Something that the inside linebackers share that is not as common with the rest of the position groups is that they have almost all of the players from last season back for 2018. With Will Compton tbeing the exception, having guys that understand the system that are looking to build off the smaller details has made things easier for the defense.
Olivadotti has noticed that even though it is tough to tell how good the group can be during offseason workouts, having players that know the aspects of the system has helped everyone else on the defense.
"It's good to have some continuity that way we've got some second year guys in this particular system and playing next to each other even though it was for only six weeks, five weeks whatever it was," Olivadotti said. "That's always good."