The questions mounted for starters Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. Through the first three weeks of the season, neither of them had recorded a sack, the metric most noticeable for an outside linebacker. But in the second half, those questions were answered, as Ryan Kerrigan earned a fourth Pro Bowl selection and Smith made impactful plays down the stretch.
This position group was the most predictable on the team, arguably the least affected by injuries, continuing to be consistent and occasionally creating a game-changing play.
Here’s a look at the unit’s season.
Review of the unit:
Washington didn’t make too many changes within the unit during the offseason. With starters in Kerrigan and Smith, and Ryan Anderson entering his second year, the team picked up free agent Pernell McPhee as another backup after declining to re-sign Junior Galette.
Those four would primarily round out the position group for the entire season, and benefit from a primarily injury-free season.
That starts with Kerrigan, 30, who has started all 126 regular season games for Washington since being selected with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. His 126 consecutive starts are the longest active streak among NFL linebackers.
He recorded his first sack of the year against the Saints, and then he started to roll, finishing with 13 sacks and three forced fumbles, arguably the most impactful one coming against Dallas near the goal line. Kerrigan stripped Dak Prescott of the football and Smith scooped it up to score an easy touchdown.
His season notched him his third straight selection, the fourth of his career (2012, 2016-18), and his second consecutive selection in which he was voted as starter. He also became the first member of the Redskins selected as a starter in back-to-back Pro Bowls since Brian Orakpo earned consecutive starts following the 2009-10 seasons.
Kerrigan also set another milestone, passing Charles Mann on the team’s all-time sacks list, and is now nine sacks shy of Dexter Manley (91.0) for first. With 13 sacks on the season, Kerrigan became the first member of the Redskins to record three consecutive double-digit sack seasons since Dexter Manley accomplished the feat across the 1983-86 seasons.
Smith, meanwhile, wasn’t able to come up with the kinds of numbers he would have liked entering free agency, but still showed how impactful he could be when causing pressure for opposing quarterbacks. With four sacks on the year and 53 tackles, he made other impressions, including an interception against the Texans.
Anderson wasn’t able to have a breakout sophomore campaign, but he did play a larger role on the team, even stepping in on offense during goal line packages to block for Adrian Peterson. Anderson missed three games with a hamstring injury near the end of the season, but managed two sacks and 18 tackles.
McPhee didn’t record a sack this season, the first time that’s happened in his career. In 13 games, he recorded 11 tackles and was a healthy scratch for a few games when the team needed to carry more offensive linemen because of injuries.
Cassanova McKinzy, on the practice squad for half the season, got an opportunity in November and played in three games, making one tackle before being placed on Injured Reserve with a pectoral injury.
The biggest question remains what the Redskins will decide to do with Preston Smith, who has had an inconsistent, if not altogether productive, four years in Washington. McPhee, who signed a one-year contract, will also become a free agent this offseason.
“I had a nice talk with him today and I think we would obviously welcome him back, but like you said he's earned the right to test the market out a bit,” Gruden said of Smith. “Hopefully we can get something done for him. I think he's still a young, developing player. I think if we're fortunate enough to get him back there are ways to utilize him a little bit more. I think he can play more spots than just outside linebacker and defensive end. I think he can play inside over the center and just do different things in the pass rush that we really haven't asked him to do yet.
“I still think his future is very bright in the National Football League,” Gruden added. “He is young, he is strong, he is long, he is smart. Obviously from a production standpoint, he only had four sacks this year and that's low for a guy like that. But, I think he will get more and more the more he plays."
As for the unit as a whole, the Redskins would like to see Anderson take a bigger step in his third year, and that could become available to him should the Redskins decide not to re-sign Smith. In any case, Gruden was happy with the production from the unit this year.
“A lot of times these guys are asked in base defense to set edges,” he said. “They do a lot of the dirty work, forcing them inside for our inside backers and defensive lineman to make some plays. Overall, [Cassanova] McKinzy came in and did some good things until he got hurt. It's a solid group in my opinion."