Steady Kerrigan Leads OLB Group, Seeks Help

Since being drafted 16th overall in 2011 to add more juice to a struggling pass-rush unit, Ryan Kerrigan has been nothing if not consistent.  Since his 7.5-sack rookie campaign, he has managed at least 8.5 sacks in every single season.  Also, perhaps more impressively, he has not missed a start since joining the league.  While he’s occasionally been the target of some criticism from fans for his lack of elite production, said criticism often ignores the fact that he’s had to shoulder the pass-rush load mostly alone.  So, if he’s disappointed, it’s mostly in relation to expectations that have been far too high to begin with.  Also, he’s got two Pro Bowls under his belt.  He’s making significantly less per year than edge rushers he’s outproduced from a sack standpoint (looking at you, Olivier Vernon).  You know exactly what you’re going to get from Kerrigan: 8-9 sacks bare minimum, many more pressures and hurries (another thing about Kerrigan that gets overlooked.)  And, perhaps most importantly, he’s going to be available barring any sort of fluke.  He’s had a few minor – and not-so-minor – injuries and played through them at less than a hundred percent.  Which, to be fair, he might not have to do if he had any sort of help in the pass rush department.  

So once again, we find ourselves looking for the man (or perhaps men) that can give Kerrigan enough support that he’s not the sum and total of our front seven pass rush.  The Redskins certainly cannot be accused of assembling enough bodies – as of now, three of our last four second-round picks (the exception being last year’s second-rounder, Su’a Cravens) occupy spots on the roster as outside linebackers.  Each has serious questions about his production, however.

2015 second-rounder Preston Smith appeared at one point about a year ago to be the answer to the Redskins’ one-dimensional edge rushing attack.  He finished his rookie year with 8 sacks and abused opposing offensive linemen at times.  Then the regression started.  Questions about his development and, more alarmingly, about his effort, started to become louder as he struggled last year through a paltry 4-sack sophomore campaign.  Now in his third training camp, Smith is running out of chances to prove himself before he’s written off.  A fringe talent that coaches characterize as a hard worker tends to have more staying power in the favor of these particular coaches than does a more talented player that is perceived as being lazy.  If Smith doesn’t find something that works for him soon, he could wind up being another David Amerson (a 2013 second-round pick of the Skins who faced similar questions about his motivation level before being cut in his third year.)

2014’s second-rounder Trent Murphy, after looking for all the world like a complete disaster of a pick, had something of a breakout year, posting 9 sacks and looking like the most dangerous pass rusher on the team at times.  Then, early this offseason, Murphy was slapped with a 4-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, leaving many to wonder whether the sudden increase in production last year was artificially aided.  Either way, he’ll be unavailable until October – not an optimal situation for a guy going into a contract year, particularly with the appearance of another rookie to threaten his snaps.

Ryan Anderson was a bit of a surprise pick for the Redskins in the second round this year for a number of reasons.  With so many question marks surrounding the position outside of Kerrigan, picking another outside linebacker didn’t seem completely out of the question, but it was generally thought that outside linebacker was third, maybe fourth, on the list of critical needs just on defense.  On top of that, Anderson had tested rather poorly at the Combine and didn’t seem to profile as the type of pass rusher we truly needed to bookend Kerrigan.  There were even some questions about whether he was being drafted for a move to inside linebacker.  It’s obviously on his first year, so a switch one day may not be completely off the table, but for now, Anderson will be in the mix at outside linebacker, where he hopes to join Crimson Tide teammate Jonathan Allen in the Redskins’ new-look front seven.  With his nondescript athletic numbers, it remains to be seen what kind of pass rusher he’ll be, but I’ll say this – many of his measurables compare favorably to Arizona OLB Markus Golden, who was described with much of the same “damning by faint praise” language as Anderson was when he came out in 2015.  After a pedestrian rookie campaign, Golden broke out this past season with a 12-sack performance.  Many people remain unconvinced based on Anderson’s combine numbers that he can be an effective pass rusher at this level.  But Anderson, even by his own description, is a football player that controlled drills in shorts don’t completely do justice.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Junior Galette, who originally signed with the Redskins in 2015 to repair his on-field and off-field image, likely has the highest ceiling in terms of sack production of anyone the team has at the position – and that includes Ryan Kerrigan.  But a pair of ruptured Achilles tendons, once in 2015 not long after he signed and again the following year, deferred Galette’s return to the field and frustrated fans who have been chomping at the bit to see the one-time double-digit sack producer unleashed.  As of now, he’s healthy again, back to his pre-injury playing shape, and has proven to be an extremely tough matchup in camp for Trent Williams with his speed and twitch.  It’s always a good idea to take what happens in camp with a grain of salt; still, Trent Williams can stake a claim to being the best left tackle in football – and what’s more is he’s in the best shape of his life.  If he’s having trouble blocking you, you’re doing something right.  For the third time, fans await with bated breath to see if he can make it to September.

As we wait to see who can step up into a role opposite Kerrigan, it’s important to keep in mind that all four of these other guys may carve a niche for themselves even if they don’t take on a majority of the snaps.  Preston Smith has flashed an ability to rush the quarterback from a defensive tackle position in sub-packages.  Ditto for Murphy.  Coaches have raved about Anderson’s ability to set the edge in the run game, and even if he only plays on early downs, that role could be instrumental in creating favorable down-and-distance situations for the pass rush unit.  Also, for what it’s worth, Nick Saban sometimes deployed Anderson as a blitzer from the inside linebacker position, which could be an option for him to get onto the field as well.

In the end, one would hope, first and foremost, that all of these guys stay healthy, and second, that Greg Manusky (who was this group’s position coach last year) maximizes the production of each by the way he rotates and deploys them.  Just about everyone in this group has flashed some talent at one point in their career, and if the coaches can pull that out of them, it would allow Manusky to get very creative.  Could we see something unorthodox that puts three, even four of these guys on the field at once?  Whatever the strategy, a consistent pass rush could help what should be an improved secondary be even more adept at forcing stops and, better yet, turnovers.