As the Redskins are getting primed for the regular season, one of the biggest question marks along their preseason progression is answering how the inside linebacker positions are shaped.
This offseason the team brought in Zach Brown on a one-year deal to add depth and upgrade the middle of the team’s defense that struggled mightily as a whole last season. Will Compton, the incumbent Mike linebacker, struggles were most noticeable in 2016 as he was battling some nagging injuries. He whiffed on tackles and gave up too much ground in the passing game.
Mason Foster, the Mo linebacker, on the surface did well. He led the team with 124 tackles and had the highest grading of the two, according to Pro Football Focus. However, he too struggled in space, and at times misread gaps, causing lanes for opposing running backs.
It was safe to say something was needed to be added to a duo that took a huge step back collectively from the previous season. Enter Brown. The assumption by fans, not media or coaches, is Brown was brought in to start, replacing the weaker Compton. However, the difference in positions has made the Redskins’ decision difficult in regards to who starts and what duo plays the most together.
All three looked noticeably good in the Redskins’ first preseason game last week against the Baltimore Ravens. But, it was Brown who stood out the most. His sideline-to-sideline speed was a welcoming sight that the Redskins haven’t had in a long time dating beyond the London Fletcher days.
Still there is the variable of different positions. Compton, is a prototypical pre-snap Mike. He is a great communicator, lining the defense in the right places. He does a great job playing chess with the opposing quarterback. And while his physical attributes may not be on par with Brown or even Foster, Compton’s leadership is a noticeable trait that is vital to being a starter.
“Obviously, Will Compton’s very smart and has been a great leader for us,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said of Compton per J.P. Finlay of CSN Mid-Atlantic. “He’s a great communicator, which you have to have at Mike linebacker.”
Meanwhile, Brown who has little experience as a Mike and who played the Will with the Buffalo Bills, may not have the communication skills of Compton but he possess a higher level of athleticism and tackling skill set – perfect for the second of two starting spots.
“Obviously Zach Brown has a great skill set for playing linebacker. He can go sideline to sideline probably athletically faster than majority of the linebackers we have,” Gruden said per Finlay.
As for Foster, he has had experience at the Mike during his four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While he posted strong tackling numbers, he was ultimately replaced due to a failure to adapt to a new system and a rash of injuries and was released by the team. After a short stint with the Chicago Bears, Foster landed with the Redskins and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup late in his first season with the team in 2015.
He has grown comfortable with the Mo position with the Redskins. However, Gruden knows and understands Foster has the experience at the Mike.
“I think Mason Foster can play both positions equally as well – Mike and what we call Mo – and he’s a good communicator,” Gruden said.
With the competition of three with their own strengths and weaknesses for two starting spots, there is no luxury being set at one position. Foster may have to get back to calling and setting the plays. Compton must step up his on-field production to equal his pre-snap abilities. Meanwhile, Brown may need to get a grasp of the responsibilities of a Mike.
Regardless this may be the most known depth going into a season at inside linebacker the Redskins have had since moving to the 3-4 defense going back to pre-Gruden days. It’s a matter of who stands out over the next two weeks in preseason action.
“…I think the three of them all have the qualities to play, so it’s just a matter of finding the right match, and who that’s going to be will be determined here in the next couple of weeks,” Gruden concluded.