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Roster Review: Inside Linebackers

Posted Mar 9, 2012

With free agency and the NFL Draft fast approaching, Redskins.com's Brian Tinsman breaks down the Redskins' roster position by position. Up next: inside linebackers.

With free agency and the NFL Draft fast approaching, Redskins.com's Brian Tinsman breaks down the Redskins' roster position by position. Up next: inside linebackers.

For the last five seasons, the Redskins have relied on London Fletcher to patrol the middle of the defense.

Even at age 36, he has never missed a start in a Redskins uniform, battling through injuries to maintain a 225-game streak of starts.

Last season was a career-year for Fletcher, who led the NFL with 209 tackles (including five for a loss), with 1.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and five takeaways.

Fletcher has been a defensive team captain for several years, but carries the respect of his teammates on both side of the ball. At the conclusion of the 2011 season, Fletcher was named second team All-Pro and played in his third-consecutive Pro Bowl.

When the team switched over from the 4-3 in 2010, Fletcher was joined in the middle by former outside linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

McIntosh started the season well in 2011, enjoying his best start of the season against the Eagles in Week 6. Three weeks later, he struggled against the 49ers and was replaced as a starter the following week.

For the season, McIntosh had 73 tackles, one sack and five quarterback hits. He played eight games as a starter, seven as a reserve and special teams player, and was deactivated for the final game.

Replacing him in the starting lineup was Perry Riley, a 2010 fourth-round draft pick. Riley made eight starts on the season, bringing a level of intensity that had been lacking at the position.

Riley finished the season ranked fourth on the defense with 82 tackles (including six for a loss), one sack and four passes defended.

Reserve linebacker Keyaron Fox joined the Redskins as a free agent last offseason, after spending his first seven seasons in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Fox, who finished with nine tackles on defense, is primarily considered a special teams contributor. He had eight tackles on punt and kick coverage units.


GARY FITZGERALD'S POSITIONAL ANALYSIS

Perhaps no other position on the Redskins' roster faces the potential for significant change.

Fletcher, McIntosh and Fox are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this offseason.

Re-signing Fletcher was called an off-season priority by head coach Mike Shanahan. Will the Redskins be able to sign him before he can test the free agent market? Would Fletcher prefer to sign with a team that is a Super Bowl contender next season?

Legitimate questions, to be sure. He is 36 years old so he is likely looking for his last contract.

It's safe to say that losing Fletcher, a locker room leader and consummate professional, would be a blow.

With the emergence of Riley, McIntosh would have to settle for a backup role if he re-signs. That seems unlikely for the 6-year veteran.

Fox would provide depth and special teams experience if he returns.

Even if Fletcher returns, it's clear that the Redskins need to address inside linebacker in free agency and the draft.


Three NFL Inside Linebackers Eligible for Free Agency

As of March 9, 2012; names listed are in no particular order

-- Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons: Since becoming a full-time starter in 2009, Lofton has accumulated 100 tackles in each of the last three years. He has never missed a game in his four-year career, and has improved statistically as a run-stopper and coverage linebacker.

-- E.J. Henderson, Minnesota Vikings: Henderson has spent his entire nine-year career in Minnesota. He has ties to the area through his Maryland alma mater. Henderson was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010 and has amassed over 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons.

-- Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions: Another tackling machine, Tulloch has recorded more than 100 tackles in each of his last two campaigns, split between Tennessee and Detroit. At 27, he is just entering the prime of his career, and will likely have multiple suitors this offseason.

Three Inside Linebackers Available In NFL Draft

As of March 9, 2012; names listed are in no particular order

-- Luke Kuechly, Boston College: Kuechly was a tackling machine at Boston College, recording 532 tackles the last few years. A versatile performer, he also had 35.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and seven interceptions. At 6-3 and 237 pounds, he has good size to match up in coverage across the middle.

-- Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho, 6-2 and 245 pounds, progressed every year at Texas and last season posted 131 tackles (including 19 tackles for a loss), three sacks and six pass break-ups. His brother Sam, a defensive end, was a fourth-round draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011.

-- Dont’a Hightower, Alabama: Hightower anchored the Crimson Tides’ top-ranked defende last season, posting career highs with 85 tackles (including 11 tackles for a loss), four sacks, one interception and three pass break-ups. A sound run-stopper, the 6-4, 260-pounder is thought to be a better fit in a 3-4.