Over the next two weeks, CSNWashington.com Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2012 and evaluate the group’s outlook for 2013.
Position: Inside linebackers
2012 starters: London Fletcher and Perry Riley
Key reserves: Lorenzo Alexander, Keenan Robinson, Bryan Kehl, Roddrick Muckelroy
Key free agents: Alexander, Kehl
Rewind: After a subpar stretch near midseason, folks started wondering whether London Fletcher’s age had finally caught up to him. By the end of 2012, though, the only question was whether he’d earn another trip to Honolulu.
And he did.
Fletcher regained his Pro Bowl form down the stretch and finished the regular season with Fletcher-like statistics: a team-leading 139 tackles, a career-high five interceptions and three sacks, his highest sack total in eight years.
Making the second-half surge all the more impressive was the fact that Fletcher did not practice much the final seven weeks because of a sprained ankle. In fact, two of his best games of the season came in Weeks 16 and 17 as the Redskins faced ‘must win’ situations. Against the Eagles, Fletcher recorded a season-high 10 solo tackles and an interception. Then a week later against the Cowboys, he sacked Tony Romo twice.
Meanwhile, Fletcher's counterpart, Perry Riley, enjoyed a breakout season in his third-year as a pro. The 24-year-old was second on the team in tackles with 129, while also notching a career-high 3.5 sacks, defending seven passes and making a team-best 45 “stops,” according to ProFootballFocus.com. Riley’s best effort was a 15-tackle performance against the Ravens.
The position's primary backup, Lorenzo Alexander, spent the offseason shedding 20 pounds to help him gain a step in pass coverage. But when outside linebacker Brian Orakpo was lost for the season, Alexander ended up being used at both the inside and outside positions. After playing only 11 snaps on defense in 2011, the 29-year-old took 325 at linebacker this past season in addition to earning his first Pro Bowl berth as a special teamer.
Overall, the position’s performance mirrored that of the defense. Which is to say Fletcher and Riley were more productive - against the pass and run - in the second half of the season.
Fast forward: Fletcher has made no public announcements regarding his future since telling reporters after the loss to Seattle that he needed some time before deciding whether to return for a 16th season.
Fletcher has another year on his contract that's scheduled to pay him $5.5 million in base salary. But it also appears that he has a lucrative future in broadcasting awaiting him once his playing days are finished - whenever that is.
If Fletcher decides not to return, the logical replacement would be Alexander. But Alexander, of course, is an unrestricted free agent. And after a career-year on defense and special teams, another club could make a serious bid for his services. Alexander told CSNWashington.com earlier this month that Mike Shanahan has promised him that Redskins will make a "competitive" offer, but there's no guarantee that he'll return.
Riley, on the other hand, has another season on his contract (at a cap-friendly hit of $707,500) and appears to be on the verge of becoming a star. His total number of tackles ranked 14th in the NFL and, with another season of experience under his belt, it's entirely possible he'll crack the top-10 in 2013.
Keenan Robinson, meantime, is recovering from season-ending surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. The 23-year-old was injured in Dallas and missed out on critical experience as the Redskins pushed toward the playoffs. But, assuming he returns from the injury 100-percent, the highly-regarded prospect figures to see an increased role next season.
Without knowing what will happen to Fletcher and/or Alexander, it's hard to envision what the lineup at inside linebacker will look like in 2013. It could look awfully familiar or very different. Stay tuned.