HOFFMAN: Evaluating Redskins' LB options without Reuben Foster

Craig Hoffman
May 21, 2019 - 12:44 pm

Reuben Foster will be placed on injured reserve and his 2019 season is over before it began. On the third snap of OTA’s, Foster ran through a gap on a bootleg play and he stepped on Tyler Catalina’s foot. He went down to the turf, writhing in pain. Some of that pain was surely physical, some of it emotional. 

The injury is serious. It’s at least a torn ACL with reports suggesting there might be more serious damage as well. Secondary to Foster’s wellbeing is the damage done to the Redskins defense. Here’s the analysis of that:

Foster raised the ceiling of the Redskins defense. He was a potential playmaker on a defense whose best players are more the “unbelievably solid” type. He was a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who Washington hoped would be able to come down hill and be a force at and behind the line of scrimmage. He was someone they hoped would force fumbles and deflect passes. He was someone they would have blitzed, and would have gotten home unlike the linebackers of years past who have been perpetually stuck on “oh so close.”

Foster was no sure thing. He was one of Jay Gruden’s favorites in the 2017 draft and very well could have been the pick had Jon Allen not fallen in the Redskins' laps. However, his career in San Francisco wasn’t just a disaster off the field, it was underwhelming on it. He simply did not produce at a first round level. He was often hurt. And then there was the off-field part of the equation.

The Redskins were hoping that a fresh start would help solve all of Foster’s ills. Instead, he faces an incredibly grueling surgery and will be pushed into their 2020 plans.

The injury validates the decision to not cut bait on Mason Foster, who becomes a starter again with Reuben Foster’s absence. Mason has been a steady player since arriving in 2015, with some huge plays on his resume but enough mediocre tape to desire an upgrade at the position. Realistically, he's probably been better than most fans realize. Many plays where he looks out of position are cases where he is covering for others, but that doesn’t mean that he should just be penciled in without competition.

The question of where Mason Foster should be penciled in is actually a question in itself. Shaun Dion Hamilton was the favorite to start at “mike” linebacker, while Reuben Foster was going to play the “mo.” The mike calls the defense and has one set of responsibilities, while the mo does no play calling and has another, though there is a lot of overlap. 

Mason Foster’s best time here was when he was the mo next to Will Compton, but he’s also a veteran who knows this defense inside and out. There’s a case to be made for making him the mike and sliding Hamilton over to mo. I think I would probably keep Hamilton as the mike and slide Foster over to mo, though. Hamilton is smart enough to call this defense and took over that job at the end of last year. 

However it’s not a 100% lock that those are the guys, and certainly there will be situations where others play. Cole Holcomb could earn a starting spot with a superior camp. He’s going to have to flat out beat out Foster or Hamilton, but his speed, instincts and intellect give him a chance. The timing of the injury helps too, as it’s so early in the spring that the Redskins coaches have more reps to work with. 

Josh Harvey-Clemons also has a role to play. It seems logical he’ll play the same third down role he has over the last few years and really performed quite well in last season. With another year of NFL weightlifting and experience under his belt, he might be able to play the mo spot full time, though. He will be a factor in this competition at that spot, while Holcomb could play either spot.

All of these players have easier jobs thanks to how good the line in front of them. If Jon Allen, Matt Ioannidis and Daron Payne stay healthy and produce, the Redskins can still be good without a total stud at linebacker. However, having one who could be a game wrecker gave this defense extraordinary potential which disappeared before the first period of OTA’s was complete.

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