London Fletcher’s play wasn’t the same a year ago, his run as a Pro Bowl linebacker over. Fletcher, though, remained a presence on the field and in the meeting room for the Redskins’ defense.
So the Redskins can replace the production of a player since retired. Finding someone who led the way he did will be a little tougher.
“Just as far as lining up, getting everyone right and making sure everyone comes to practice in the right attitude,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said.
They can survive without such a strong leader, but it’s nice to have. Fletcher provided a veteran voice the players could trust. Who might take his place? Here are some players who can help:
Safety Ryan Clark: The leader in the clubhouse (there wasn’t a pun intended, but after writing it maybe there was). Clark is the most natural leader on the defense and he plays a position where he must communicate every play. So it enhances that leadership role. He’s someone who can get players lined up right, guide them in the meeting rooms and serve as a strong mentor. He has the reputation for telling players what others might shy away from saying. He has the credentials, playing a key role on two Super Bowl championship teams, and he carved a career, like Fletcher did, as an undrafted free agent. Players like that, who last this long, have a different quality about them and others take notice.
The question is, what does Clark have left on the field? It’s tough to be the same leader if you’re struggling. Pittsburgh felt he was done. Of course, the Steelers didn’t suffer through what the Redskins did with their safeties last year (and the past few). I also wonder if it matters to players that Clark spends a lot of time on TV, his transition to post-NFL life having (smartly) begun. During the season his focus will be on the team so it might not matter at all. Still, Clark is the most natural in this role.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall: He’s matured over the years and has been a captain. The Redskins used him to help recruit potential free agents, DeSean Jackson in particular. Money always wins out, but the fact that the Redskins wanted him as one of the players to help in this area says a lot about Hall. He seems to like this role. While it helps Clark to have played for a top franchise in Pittsburgh, does it hurt that Hall has played two seasons in which his team finished with a winning record? Don't know; Hall has lasted a long time in the NFL and is coming off a Pro Bowl season. But it’s difficult for corners to be the primary leaders on a defense, in part because their jobs require them to have less of a big-picture look than other positions. The best leaders that I’ve seen in Washington have been linebackers, safeties and the occasional defensive lineman (Marco Coleman).
Linebacker Perry Riley: It’s not in his personality to be that sort of guy. Riley is smart, but doesn’t like the spotlight – a leader has to also serve as a mouthpiece for the defense. He’s better as a complementary guy.
Linebacker Keenan Robinson: Tough to be a leader when you’ve played in only 11 games, started none and missed the past year with a second injury. There’s a chance he’ll end up replacing Fletcher in the lineup and this position demands he be a good communicator. But he still has to prove he's better than Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan. Whoever is in this role must call out the defensive signals, get guys lined up, call out changes. A leadership role is a natural outbreak of this, but Robinson is not close to being that sort of guy. He needs to win the job, prove his value in games and then perhaps he’ll grow into a leadership role.
Nose tackle Barry Cofield: He’s comfortable in a leadership role. He’s not the same sort of presence as Fletcher in terms of being a coach on the field, but he was a leader with the Giants and has been one in Washington. He understands what comes with that: always being available, especially during the hard times. Hall typically is, but there have been times in the past when the losses pile up that he stays away from the media for a couple weeks (except for after games). Regardless of who emerges as the defensive voice, Cofield will provide leadership.
Linebacker Brian Orakpo: When Orakpo was injured two years ago, one former Redskins coach felt the team had lost one of its most passionate players. His value comes more in that than in being a guy who will replace Fletcher as The Leader on defense.