Whether the Washington Commanders decide to re-sign a few of their own or bring in some new players during free agency, the team will need to address its depth at linebacker.
As it stands right now, 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis is one of the few Commanders linebackers guaranteed to be on the roster next season. The rest of the position, however, is much murkier. Of the Commanders' 19 pending free agents, five come from the linebacker position. That includes starters like Cole Holcomb and David Mayo as well as young players with potential like Milo Eifler and Khaleke Hudson.
Washington will certainly retain some of those players, but it could also do with bringing in more depth. Luckily, there are some intriguing options at the East-West Shrine Bowl, and Commanders.com got the chance to speak with three of those prospects: Utah's Mohamoud Diabate, N.C. State's Drake Thomas and Duke's Shaka Heyward.
Here's a breakdown of what they had to say about their experiences in Las Vegas during Media Day.
-- Thomas, who comes to Las Vegas with 45 games of experience over four seasons, has made steady progress over the last four seasons. He is coming of a year in which he recorded 101 tackles and 7.5 sacks, and Pro Football Focus gave him a run-stop grade of 90.5. His coverage, however, is the area that grabbed people's attention during practice, as he mirrored UCLA's Kazmeir Allen perfectly during one-on-one drills and came down with an interception.
"Being a linebacker and going one-on-one with a running back, you just really gotta stay patient," Thomas said. "You wanna close space, you wanna close that gap between you and the running back...and keep good eyes on the hips. It worked in my favor. I was able to close the space, cut the route and get the interception.
-- Thomas feels that he has a well-rounded skill set and has been on an incline. There is much about what he has done during his time at N.C. State that proves that is accurate. Forty-six of his 292 tackles in four seasons were for a loss; he took a jump in his coverage ability with three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, in 2021; he got 44 pressures in 2022; and he played nearly 3,000 snaps in that span. Of course, he wants to be as prepared as possible for the NFL, but he feels that as long as he continues his upward trajectory, he feels confident in what he can offer at the professional level.
-- Speaking of well-rounded players, Heyward is a linebacker who has proven he can do it all. Tackling is clearly one of Heyward's strengths. He knows how to fill gaps in the run game, which helped him record 90-plus tackles in back-to-back seasons. He also knows how to operate in passing situations as well, as he had six pass deflections in 2022. The past week has been a good experience for Heyward, who has gotten the chance to learn from coaches and build relationships with his teammates.
"It's been good getting to learn a new defense, just getting adapted to the way the Patriots like to run their defense. Just getting a feel for what the NFL is like."
-- At this point Heyward is considered a Day 2 pick at the earliest, but the former Blue Devil is confident he can impact a team. He believes whichever team drafts him will get a dependable player.
"That's something I've been saying since I was little, being able to do what I'm coached to do."
-- As for Diabate, the former member of the Utah Utes often gets compared to 2022 first-round pick Devin Lloyd, which is not a bad thing. After all, Lloyd recorded 111 tackles and four interceptions during his final season with Utah. To be clear, Diabate and Lloyd are different players in multiple aspects. For example, Diabate feels that he is a bit faster. But he has learned much from Lloyd's ability as a leader.
"The little words that he would say to everybody, I came in [from Florida] and I felt the effects of that. I just have great, great respect for his game."
-- Leadership is something that Lloyd and Diabate have in common. Diabate's position coach, Colton Swan, said that trait comes naturally to him because of his personality. Diabate plans to bring that with him to the NFL, but he also knows that a key part of leadership is knowing when not to lead. He is eager to learn from the veterans of whatever team drafts him and plans on soaking in as much information as possible.
"That's just how you handle it, because in college, it's a little bit different," Diabate said. "Everybody's nearly the same age, same experience. But when you get to the NFL, you just want to learn the environment, understand what's demanded and expected out of each player, so you know how to lead properly."