The Redskins debuted three players in ESPN's #NFLRank Project, but they’re likely headed in different directions. They had two players on the rise and a third who, at some point, has to suffer a decline.
Linebacker London Fletcher was No. 71 in the defensive rankings, two spots ahead of fellow linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. And running back Alfred Morris, an unknown this time a year ago, jumped in with a No. 75 ranking.
Fletcher finished last season strong after a slow start. This despite being unable to practice for most of their seven-game winning streak with a sprained ankle that required offseason surgery. But the question is: How long can he play at a higher level?
There were signs early last season that Fletcher's age (38) might finally start taking over. He missed more tackles than usual and was not making as many. In the first seven games he did have games of 13, 20 and 10 tackles. He also had six games with seven or fewer -- at a time when the Redskins’ defense was facing more plays. But in the final seven games, when the defense improved overall, he had one game with fewer than seven tackles. He also made four of his five interceptions during the winning streak. There has been no noticeable drop-off in his play this summer and he still approaches the game with the same passion and intensity that he’s exhibited throughout his career. His knowledge of the Redskins’ defense, and ability to diagnose an offense, remains vital.
Kerrigan’s numbers should improve this season, if only because the Redskins have shown more of a pass rush this summer. He posted 8.5 sacks last year and was too quiet in too many games. But the Redskins plan to move him around, sometimes aligning him as a defensive tackle in a fast nickel package. He rushes well from this spot. With Brian Orakpo back, the Redskins have more options and more ability to create one-on-one situations for others. Kerrigan plays well off the pressure others apply so if the down linemen are in more one-on-ones and collapse the pocket, it increases the chances for Kerrigan, entering his third year. He could crack double-digit sacks for the first time in his career.
As for Morris, I’m a little surprised he wasn’t higher. How high? That’s tough for me to say, but I’m guessing there’s still a belief that a lot of what he did stemmed from playing alongside Robert Griffin III. Maybe that’s the case and in some situations it is. But Morris still averaged 4.6 yards per carry in non zone-read option runs (he carried it 57 times for 334 yards out of the zone-read). Much of Morris’ game is subtle: his ability to run with patience, set up blocks and then make quick cuts. He’s adept at breaking tackles, mostly by lowering his pads and using his leg strength. The Redskins anticipate, of course, an equally strong season. I share their optimism.