Linebackers. Some call them the tight ends of the defense, and it’s true, in a sense; defensive linemen and cornerbacks generally have a more direct impact on success. But don’t tell fans of the Washington Football Team, as they’ve had to watch linebackers miss tackles, fumble around run fits, and stumble in coverage for far too long. There’s hope that Washington’s linebackers in 2020 can change that, but first, there’s a competition that needs to be settled.
Washington’s linebacker situation in 2020
On paper, Washington’s 2020 linebacker group isn’t very inspiring. Proven ability is in short supply, and the many starting candidates all have varying degrees of uncertainty to their names.
Some are veterans on the down-trend. Others are young players that still need to develop. There’s a general feeling of hope that the new coaching staff, combined with a stout defensive front, will help the younger linebackers develop, but Washington’s coaches can’t get complacent.
Nothing will be given in Washington’s 2020 linebacking core, and everything will be earned. There won’t be any preseason action to help separate players, but the hope is that players will be able to show off their talents and improvements in simulated game environments at training camp. There aren’t a lot of snaps to go around, however, and Washington’s linebacker group is one of its most cluttered positions.
The Washington linebackers
- Thomas Davis
- Cole Holcomb
- Reuben Foster
- Jon Bostic
- Ryan Anderson
- Shaun Dion Hamilton
- Kevin Pierre-Louis
- Khaleke Hudson
- Donald Payne
- Jared Norris
- Josh Harvey-Clemons (Opt-out)
How many linebackers will Washington carry?
Ron Rivera carried less off-ball linebackers last year in Carolina, primarily due to a short-lived scheme switch to the 3-4 alignment. In Washington, however, Rivera will be working with the more familiar 4-3 scheme again, and his positional preferences are surprisingly consistent when we take a look at his history.
From 2016 to 2018, Rivera carried seven linebackers on his initial 53-man roster. Two at each linebacker spot and one as a reserve and a designated special teams contributor. Before that point, Rivera routinely kept six, but in the latter portion of his Panthers career, it was clear that having space allotted to special teams was important to him.
There’s a chance Washington keeps six linebackers, but given the team’s depth and versatility at the position, seven seems to be a more likely number.
The likely starters at linebacker for Washington
Cole Holcomb is the only incumbent starter for Washington, having started 15 of 16 games in 2020. Despite being a fifth-round rookie, Holcomb produced at a solid clip, logging 105 total tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack, one pass deflection, and 3 forced fumbles in his time on the field.
Holcomb quickly became one of the better run defending linebackers in the league, but his lack of instincts in coverage also became apparent. Luckily for Holcomb, he has the physical foundation necessary to improve.
Holcomb is an elite athlete, with a 4.48 40-yard dash time, a 132-inch broad jump, and a 6.77 three-cone time on record from his North Carolina pro day, all while standing at 6-foot-1, 235 (Relative Athletic Score of 9.64). Holcomb still has room to grow, but if he can keep progressing, he could man any one of the three linebacker spots.
More than 10 years older than both of his fellow projected starters, Davis has been a regular on Rivera’s teams over the past decade. Rivera has brought him back to Washington to serve as a mentor, as well as an infusion of security for an uncertain linebacker group. Despite his age, Davis hasn’t yet fallen off the cliff; he started all 16 games for the Chargers last year, racking up 112 total tackles.
Davis isn’t the All-Pro player he used to be, but his experience and athleticism should serve him well enough to start again for Washington. The hope is that he’ll also be able to help remedy the communication issues that have plagued Washington’s defensive unit for years on end.
Writers spent the whole offseason tip-toeing around Reuben Foster in roster predictions because it wasn’t even a sure thing that he’d be healthy to start the 2020 season. But now that Foster’s been removed from the PUP list, and teammates and coaches have been hyping up his return, we can start to run with the idea that Foster might finally return to the football field as a starter.
By all accounts, Foster has been working hard to stay in shape and learn Rivera’s scheme in the weeks leading up to training camp. His film shows that not only can Foster be productive when healthy, but he also has exciting and unrealized potential with his combination of instincts and athleticism.
Washington currently views Foster as an outside linebacker, but he can also play the MIKE role effectively, and that versatility will be a factor in him getting opportunities.
Other starting candidates at linebacker
No one is debating that Washington probably would’ve been better off choosing either Kenny Golladay or JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Still, Rivera has voiced his excitement about using Ryan Anderson in different defensive roles.
Anderson has served as an edge rusher for the past three seasons, but he’s too small to take on that job in a 4-3 scheme effectively, and he’s not athletic enough to be a speed rusher. Anderson does, however, display some prowess as a run defender, so he could see time as a SAM linebacker for Washington.
Widely considered a journeyman at the linebacker position, Jon Bostic managed to start all 16 games for Washington in 2019. He was only a marginal starter, but Rivera seems to like Bostic’s experience and production amidst dysfunctional circumstances.
Bostic will get a chance to earn a starting role in 2020, but given his lack of consistency and athletic superiority, he might settle more easily into a rotational role.
Shaun Dion Hamilton
Shaun Dion Hamilton likely won’t start, but there’s a chance he could impress Rivera in training camp. Hamilton, Foster’s successor at Alabama, had trouble with injuries in college, which detracted from his draft stock, and led to him being a sixth-round pick in 2018.
However, Hamilton has remained healthy for Washington, and he’s displayed the necessary awareness and athleticism to be of assistance. In 2019, he allowed just 12 completions and 71 yards on 24 targets in coverage, culminating in a measly opposing passer rating of 52.8.
Darkhorse – LB Kevin Pierre-Louis
With so much up in the air in Washington, it’s not out of the equation that a complete newcomer could steal a premier gig at linebacker if he has the goods. Kevin Pierre-Louis does, in fact, have the goods. At the 2014 NFL Combine, Pierre-Louis logged a 4.51 40-yard dash, a 39-inch vertical, a 128-inch broad jump, and 22 bench reps, all at 6-foot-0, 232 (RAS of 9.76).
Pierre-Louis has, for the most part, been a career special teams player since being drafted by the Seahawks in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. But in 2019, the 28-year old got his first chance to be a multi-game starter for the Chicago Bears, and he fared very well.
In the final four games of the season, Pierre-Louis logged 35 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception, and three pass deflections. He also allowed a lowly passer rating of 55.1 on 21 targets. It’s a small sample size, but don’t count out Pierre-Louis in the starting equation. He has the time-relevant production and athleticism to warrant an extended look.
Predicting Washington’s 2020 linebackers
All told, I think Rivera will keep seven linebackers on the Washington Football Team for the 2020 season. My prediction is that Holcomb, Davis, and Foster will be the starters, while Pierre-Louis, Anderson, and Bostic all rotate in regularly.
Rivera’s seventh special teams’ linebacker has traditionally been Jared Norris, but this year, it will likely be fifth-round rookie Khaleke Hudson, who has traits that are conducive to success in that role.
Washington’s linebacker group for the 2020 season doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence outside of D.C., but when delving into the details, it’s clear that there is at least a reason for measured optimism. An improvement from the 2019 group is a baseline for success in Washington. While that’s a low bar to pass, if Washington’s players can develop quickly, they won’t stop there.