Fourth in a series, following looks at nose tackles, defensive ends and safeties.
Having previously looked at potential free agent fits elsewhere on defense, today we turn to inside linebackers. In Will Compton and Mason Foster, the Washington Redskins have a solid pair of inside linebackers, though Compton is a restricted free agent. They aren’t necessarily the flashiest linebackers, but they do their job and complement each other well. That being said, Washington lacks depth at the position and would need a starter if Compton doesn’t return.
Big name: Dont’a Hightower, age 26
The New England Patriots linebacker is undoubtedly the biggest name on the market at inside linebacker. Like all Patriots defenders, Hightower is a consistent and reliable performer, rarely making many mistakes. He’s a strong run defender who is big enough to work off blockers in the run game but still athletic enough to drop into coverage.
On this play, the New York Jets look to run an outside zone play to their right. Right guard Brian Winters attempts to work up to the second level to block Hightower.
Hightower reads the block and works to the outside shoulder of the guard, withstanding the blocker as he looks to plug his gap.
Hightower then easily works off the block, taking away the cutback lane for running back Matt Forte, who attempts to bounce his run back outside. Hightower sticks to Forte and makes the tackle for a minimal gain.
That play shows Hightower’s strength to deal with blockers with far more weight on their frame. At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, Hightower isn’t small, but offensive linemen typically range from 300 to 330 pounds. Being able to handle those bigger blockers is a huge part of Hightower’s game. But often, linebackers playing at his size struggle to drop into coverage. Hightower doesn’t have that issue.
Here, Hightower lines up over a tight end, but drops back into an underneath zone coverage.
As Hightower drops to his landmark, he keeps his eyes in the backfield on quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He watches Taylor look to his right initially.
As Taylor works through his progressions to his left, Hightower spots LeSean McCoy working out of the backfield as a check-down option. He anticipates the ball being dumped off to McCoy and breaks on the throw before Taylor even begins his throwing motion.
Hightower makes up the ground quickly and makes a solid tackle on McCoy as he secures the catch, keeping the gain to a minimum.
Hightower’s athletic ability also enables him to be an effective pass rusher.
Here, Hightower lines up on the edge outside of Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews.
Matthews initially works inside, not expecting Hightower to rush. That means he’s late to the outside to pick up Hightower, who makes the most of that advantage. Hightower plays lower and gets his hands inside on the chest of Matthews and then extends his arms out to help drive Matthews backwards. Matthews can’t keep up with Hightower and gets turned around completely.
Hightower works off the block and lands a hit on quarterback Matt Ryan just as he delivers his pass. He can’t quite prevent the pass, but certainly forces a hurried throw.
Hightower is expected to draw a number of suitors on the open market, which could lead to his contract being one of the more expensive deals given out this offseason. While Washington has plenty of cap room, it has plenty of their own free agents to take care of first. Going after an expensive free agent like Hightower might not fit with Washington’s plans this offseason.
Good value: Zach Brown, age 27
Brown, the Tennessee Titans’ second-round pick in the 2012 draft, is a talented but inconsistent linebacker. At his best, he’s an athletic, versatile player who is a threat in all phases at the heart of a defense. However, the inconsistencies lead to the Titans letting him walk in free agency last offseason as he joined the Buffalo Bills on a one-year deal to back up rookie Reggie Ragland. Ragland tore his anterior cruciate ligament in training camp, leading to Brown becoming the starter. Brown put up a career year, with 149 tackles, second only to Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks.
Here, the Steelers call for a counter run play. The play is designed for the tight end to sift back across the line of scrimmage and wrap around to block Brown, freeing up a running lane for running back Le’Veon Bell.
Brown reads the run well, working inside to take on the tight end and squeezing him inside to take away an inside running lane for Bell, forcing him to bounce his run outside.
As Bell attempts to bounce his run outside, Brown works off the block to get to Bell, stopping him from breaking through the line of scrimmage and making the tackle to keep him to a minimal gain.
This play shows good football intelligence from Brown, diagnosing the play quickly and taking away a rushing lane. He also has the athletic ability to stay on the field for all three downs. He’s effective in coverage and as a pass rusher.
On this play against the Patriots, the Bills send Brown on a blitz in the B gap between the left guard and left tackle.
The left guard spots Brown coming on the blitz and attempts to pass off a defensive tackle before working across to pick up Brown. But Brown is too quick, skipping past the guard before he has a chance to cut him off.
Brown gets to the quarterback and brings him down to complete the sack.
Brown had four sacks on the season and would fit in well with a Washington defensive scheme that asks its inside linebackers to blitz relatively frequently. He isn’t just limited to being a blitzer though. He combines his athletic ability with his football intelligence to allow him to make plays in coverage too.
In the red zone, the Steelers look to run a play-action pass with the intent of finding the tight end in the end zone for a touchdown.
Brown initially bites on the fake, but realizes that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger holds on to the ball. He reads Roethlisberger’s eyes, and they take him to where the pass is going.
Brown quickly sinks back in coverage and makes a fantastic interception to prevent the touchdown.
Brown could prove to be a strong addition to any team, but there is certainly risk involved. His 2016 season has been his only full season of consistent production in the past three years. If Brown manages to play at his highest level consistently, he could prove to be a bargain. But if he continues to struggle with inconsistencies, he’ll fail to provide full value to any contract he receives.
Under the radar: Donald Butler, age 28
Butler has been through plenty of ups and downs throughout his NFL career. He was the San Diego Chargers’ third-round pick in 2010 and missed his entire rookie season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament before the season began. He bounced back in 2011 under Greg Manusky, now Washington’s defensive coordinator, and produced one of the best seasons of his career with 96 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Since then, he’s failed to play a full season as a starter because of various injuries and was released by the Chargers in March of last year. He eventually landed with the Miami Dolphins, appearing in 14 games this season.
While the injuries and drop in production might put teams off of him, he does have a link to Manusky, which makes him an under-the-radar option for Washington, which needs depth at the position. Butler flashed on occasion last season.
Here, the Bills call a counter run. With plenty of moving parts, it’s a run that can confuse a linebacker trying to diagnose the play.
Butler has no issues diagnosing it, working to the weak side of the run as he’s approached by the right guard working up to the second level.
The guard manages to reach Butler, but can’t prevent him from getting to the play side. Butler leans into the blocker while working to plug the cut-back lane.
McCoy, the running back, has to cut back inside, where he finds Butler waiting for him. Butler works off the block to make the tackle for minimal gain.
The Dolphins didn’t use Butler much as a blitzer, but he is capable of rushing the passer. He has seven career sacks, including this one from 2015 with the Chargers.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, Butler blitzes the B gap between the left guard and tackle. The running back is assigned to work across and pick him up.
The back misreads the blitz and works too far outside initially, leaving him out of position to pick up Butler.
The back attempts to cut-block Butler to make up for his mistake, but Butler simply runs over him on his way to the quarterback. Butler meets his teammate at quarterback Joe Flacco as they split the sack.
If signed, Butler wouldn’t necessarily command a starting role, but he would at least provide some depth and offer help on special teams. Given the best year of his career came under Manusky, he could conceivably challenge Compton and Foster for one of the starting positions in training camp.
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