ASHBURN, Virginia -- The question gets asked because of the leaders the Washington Redskins lost: Jason Hatcher and Dashon Goldson in particular. Even Terrance Knighton was a strong voice for the defense. But Hatcher retired; Goldson remains unsigned, and Knighton is with New England.
That doesn’t mean the Redskins are worried about a leadership void -- nor should they be.
"We have got a lot of guys on defense that are really good, because they are maybe not the vocal-leader types," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said, "but the lead-by-example types. And people know when you step on the field on defense what is expected of you, and that is the result of great leadership."
There are questions if they need more help up front. You can wonder if they have finally solved issues at safety. But a defense that included strong leaders last season still has plenty. Leadership is not simply about delivering strong speeches. It's about knowing how to prepare or handle certain situations and helping others do the same. Strong leadership last season, for example, helped Preston Smith go from a rookie who needed to learn how to be a professional to one who did so -- in part because some veterans called him out -- and finished well. It made a difference in Quinton Dunbar's transition from receiver to cornerback.
Here’s a look at some that stand out:
Linebacker Compton: He has a chance to be an excellent leader. He studied leadership and motivational work for several years, but it’s mostly because of his personality. Compton is well-liked and respected by his teammates -- he’s highly popular in the locker room, in part because of his combination of passion and respect for the game, and his personality. Teammates like ribbing him. But on the field his communication skills are solid.
Bruton: He came to Washington with the reputation of being a leader, and was Denver’s special teams captain. The man he’s replacing, Goldson, served as a defensive leader last season. The Redskins have said Bruton has the same ability. With inexperienced safeties -- Hall and Will Blackmon -- around him, that ability should come in handy.
Kerrigan: When you prepare right, practice and play hard, then you earn respect. And you become a player others need to follow. That's Kerrigan. He’s not the player who is going to rally the troops with a stirring speech, but he’s a definite lead-by-example player.
Jean Francois: He’s a good leader whether he’s a backup or a starter. During tough times last season, he kept players focused by harping on what they could still do. He’s not afraid to say a thing or two. He’s respected and also works hard, so it’s not as if he just spouts off phrases that sound good (believe me, that is the case with some). His wisdom, too, comes from having been on many winning teams.
Hall: He’s grown quite a bit since he first arrived in Washington in 2008. I doubt at that time many would have expected him to become a team leader. Hall hasn’t played on many winning teams (three in 13 years), but he does know how to survive in the NFL, and he does have wisdom and insight to share. It’s hard for cornerbacks to be a strong team leader, in part because their position can be so isolated. But at safety he’s more in charge of the entire defense, making secondary or coverage calls. He needs to know more of what’s going on in front of him, too. So his focus now goes beyond just his position.
Lineman Kedric Golston: As of now he’ll be the starting nose tackle. He’s lived life on the bubble for a few years, and spent most of the early part of his career that way as a sixth-round pick in 2006. But here he is, playing for his fourth head coach; there’s a reason he’s lasted, and players respect him quite a bit -- they refer to him as Uncle Ked. When Compton gets started on Golston’s speeches, you can feel him getting pumped up and see the goose bumps forming on his arm.
Cornerback Josh Norman: I don’t know yet if he’s a team leader, but what he brings that can help is an attitude. And if players see him working hard, that’s even better. Norman plays with swagger, and believes he’s the best. If he works to back it up, that rubs off.
Overall, the defense has solid players in this area -- guys who fall into the strong leader category and others who follow their leads. Or bring other qualities. Players such as cornerback Bashaud Breeland -- passion, takes care of his job -- linebackers Perry Riley Jr. and Mason Foster, and linemen Chris Baker and Stephen Paea. The list goes on. Whether the defense improves, time will tell. But they will be fine when it comes to leadership and mindset.