The Washington Redskins’ most decorated impending free agents—outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and cornerback DeAngelo Hall—have combined to earn six Pro Bowl nods.
Orakpo has a career 39.5 sacks. Hall has 23 interceptions, six forced fumbles and five touchdowns while donning the burgundy and gold. Both players were first-round picks.
But would you believe that inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr.—a former fourth-round selection and two-year starter who's never been to Hawaii—is more important to the future of the Washington Redskins than both Orakpo and Hall?
In an offseason that will include radical roster turnover, Washington needs stability at certain positions. Inside linebacker is one of them.
Although his stats don't fly off the page, Riley is a promising 25-year-old who spent the last four seasons learning from one of the game's great linebackers: the recently retired London Fletcher.
The void Fletcher will leave in Washington, particularly his leadership, cannot be understated. His departure will be felt on the field, but mostly off of it.
Perhaps no other player on the Redskins' current roster benefited more from watching Fletcher work than Riley.
The Washington Post's Mike Jones noted last week that while Fletcher was still running the defense in 2013, Riley's responsibilities increased—and his production stood out:
Riley spent the two previous seasons as London Fletcher’s sidekick at inside linebacker. But this past season, although Fletcher continued to make all of the defensive calls while serving as an on-field extension of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, Riley’s duties expanded as he more frequently drew pass coverage assignments. He also overtook Fletcher as the team’s leading tackler, recording 115. He also recorded three sacks and an interception.
When the Redskins retained Haslett last month, it was a move that screamed stability. Not only would it now be foolish to acquire two new starting inside linebackers, it would also stunt the growth of a defense that’s arguably a few moves in the secondary away from being much-improved.
Riley has been prepared to step into the role of defensive play-caller. The organization has invested too much in his development to watch him just walk.
From a business perspective, Riley will naturally be looking to cash in. According to Jones, league insiders predict that he will seek a deal in the neighborhood of $7 million annually. Should both sides come to an agreement, it's a safe bet that Riley's responsibilities will extend well beyond the field.
With a watered-down crop of free-agent inside linebackers, it's likely that the Redskins will draft Fletcher's replacement; Wisconsin’s Chris Borland and Stanford’s Shayne Skov are two names that come to mind. If that line of thinking proves to be true, Riley's leadership and willingness to help a rookie get up to speed will be critical to the long-term success of that unit.
Crazier things have happened, but there is a sufficient amount of evidence pointing to Riley remaining in Washington. Orakpo, however, is a different story.
The Redskins will do everything within reason to re-sign No. 98. But sometimes common sense goes out the window during free agency, and bidding wars commence.
There are several NFL teams with loads of cap space willing to overspend for a top-end pass-rusher. With gaping holes on both sides of the football, the Redskins can only afford to give Orakpo what he's worth. They’ll have to think long and hard if $10 million-plus annually is a wise investment.
And remember, the Redskins won the NFC East in 2012 with Orakpo essentially missing the entire season. Should he leave D.C. for greener pastures this offseason, the money originally earmarked for him could be used to pursue a more cost-effective pass-rusher, plus another impact defensive starter.
Which Redskins free agent is the most critical to re-sign?
As for Hall, he was the Redskins' best corner in 2013 and should come at a reasonable price given his age. Still, there are plenty of free-agent corners—both high-profile names and bargains—who would fit in just fine across from last year's second-round pick David Amerson.
There's no ideal replacement for Riley in free agency. No player on the market knows Haslett's system inside out. Few, if any, free agents can say they were personally groomed by a Hall of Fame-caliber teammate since day one of their pro career.
The stage is set for general manager Bruce Allen. Before the Redskins begin flaunting approximately $30 million of cap space to unrestricted free agents from the 31 other NFL teams, they'll have a shot to retain a few of their own.
Bringing back Hall is mildly important. Orakpo is a priority with boundaries. But life without Riley would suggest that the decision-making process at Redskins Park is flawed.
All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.