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Commanders LBs lead NFL in Mike Clay's offseason projections


The linebacker position has been the Washington Commanders' most glaring weakness on defense, not just since last season but for the past four years.

It's still too early to predict how the group will perform in 2024, but at least the national perception has changed since Dan Quinn and Adam Peters took over.

The Commanders heavily bolstered their linebacker corps in the first few months of the new regime, signing veterans Bobby Wagner and Frankie Luvu along with drafting Jordan Magee in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. Those moves got the attention of ESPN's Mike Clay, who ranked Washington's linebackers as the league's best heading into the upcoming season.

The Commanders were the only team to get a perfect grade (4.0) at linebacker from Clay in his position-by-position rankings, beating out the San Francisco 49ers (3.9), Jacksonville Jaguars (3.8) and New York Jets (3.6). As a comparison, Clay ranked the Commanders' linebackers 29th in the NFL with a 0.6 grade heading into the 2023 season.

That drastic shift is a credit to the work the Commanders have done to improve the personnel at the position. Wagner, who has the most tackles in the league among active players, is at the center of that effort. Despite being one of the oldest active linebackers, he led the NFL with 183 stops last season, and he's recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his 12 seasons.

Pro Football Focus' John Kosko ranked Wagner 15th on his "30 players over 30" list.

"Wagner remains one of the top linebackers in the NFL, recording a 91.1-plus PFF run-defense grade in each of the past two seasons," Kosko wrote.

Wagner has already earned his new teammates' respect because of Hall of Fame resume and leadership, too.

"Man, he just brings a winning presence, a winning culture, the way he works every day," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. "When you see a guy like that, in year 13, first-ballot Hall of Famer, work as hard as he does, there's really no excuse for anybody else."

Luvu, who spent the last three seasons with the Carolina Panthers, might not have the same resume as Wagner, but it didn't take long for his new coaches and teammates to appreciate the impact he could have in the DMV. In the two years that Luvu was a full-time starter for the Panthers, he racked up 136 tackles and 12.5 sacks. He also grabbed an interception in 2022 and took it 33 yards to the end zone.

When defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. was asked what he likes about Luvu, he responded with his own question: "What's not to like about him?"

"He is the heartbeat of what competitive hardnosed, defensive football's about," Whitt said. "I remember he said, 'Coach, just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it.' And he goes as hard as he can. I love that. He's a fun guy to be around. Fun guy to coach."

While it is unknown just how much Magee will contribute during his rookie season, there's no doubt that he knows how to be productive. A former captain for the Temple Owls, Magee (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) got a lot of good experience while at Temple, rising as a starter in 2021. However, he took his game to a new level in 2022 and 2023. That junior season, he led the Owls with 86 tackles in 12 games. Then, in his final campaign, he not only led the team with 80 tackles and 14 TFLs but tied the team lead with 3.5 sacks.

There's also Jamin Davis, who has gradually improved since his rookie season in 2021. Davis was third on the team with 89 tackles in 2023, but the new regime is trying him out at different spots on the field to maximize his skill set. During OTAs, he was used as a stand-up edge rusher -- a role that he embraced because it allows him to "just really cut it loose and just go hunt some quarterbacks."

"And we're trying to really push him specifically on the versatility," Quinn said. "So, you'll see him working some with the defensive line, you'll see him working with [pass rush specialist] Ryan Kerrigan on the side, and we're adding parts to his game that maybe we didn't use and we're certainly trying to explore that."

Despite the work they did to improve the roster overall, the Commanders still have several questions to answer, particularly when it comes to their defense, which was ranked last in almost every category in 2023. If the Commanders have any hopes of improving upon their 4-13 finish from a year ago, they must find a way to stop making things easy for opposing offenses.

Offseason rankings don't win games in September, but at least on paper, the Commanders look better at a position that has been a sore spot for years.

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