I realize some might not consider the starter for the 2nd half of the season last year a sleeper, but in the grand scheme of things Riley is still an after thought in this defense, and needs to prove his worth. Now unlike when I looked at Evan Royster and Madieu Williams as potential sleepers, Riley can’t settle for just exceeding expectations and playing a significant role. Riley already has that role and needs to prove that he can be a very good starter. The good news is the former 4th round pick has the skill set to do just that, and why he has the chance to surprise the league.
Now when you have one inside linebacker as good as London Fletcher, one would think that it wouldn’t matter much who was playing next to him, but Rocky McIntosh disproved that idea. In a 3-4 defense the linebackers are extremely important, as the line’s primary job is to occupy blockers to free up the linebackers. Riley finally gave the Redskins the positive production next to Fletcher, that they lacked for their first year and a half in the 3-4 system.
When you look at the basic numbers Riley and McIntosh didn’t have to dissimilar of seasons. Riley’s 68 tackles (tackle numbers vary source to source this is via ESPN) have only a slight edge to McIntosh’s 65, but the real difference between the two is where Riley was racking up these tackles. Despite playing just 48% of the defensive snaps, Riley led the team in tackles for a loss with 5. In addition a far higher number of Riley’s tackles came after just a short gain, whereas McIntosh was making more of his tackles 4+ yards down the field. Riley won’t be threatening London Fletcher for the tackle lead, but he does display very good awareness and recognition that really helps him.
Riley’s run defense actually won’t be the issue as to whether or not he develops into the starting caliber player the Redskins need. The real question is if he’s a true 3-down player. Riley struggled last season both in rushing the passer and in coverage, something that has to be fixed to excel in today’s NFL. Riley wasn’t awful in any area, but by struggling in both it raises some questions. Riley lacked much instinct or pass rush moves when asked to pressure the QB. While that isn’t his primary job, the Redskins due run the Steelers style of 3-4, which has always asked their inside linebackers to be quality situational blitzers. They might only get after the QB 1/6 or 1/7th of the pass defense snaps, but they have to make the most out of them.
The bigger issue though is Riley’s ability to be an effective defender against the pass. Riley struggled versus some of the league’s better TE’s and RB’s. While that is a tough match-up for anyone, if Riley wants to show that he can be a 3 down ILB, he’s got to find a way to stop them more consistently. This is obviously a growing concern as more and more teams utilize their backs and TE’s to create mismatches, and teams are just throwing the ball more in general.
Now on the positive side Riley has the speed and athletic ability to match-up with most TE’s and to get pressure on the QB. He’s also young and made big strides from year one to two, so their is hope that he can continue to grow. If he does Riley could be a major asset to this defense, and make a pretty big long term impact. If he doesn’t well, then the Redskins may look to sub him out on passing downs or even play other inside linebackers at his spot. I think Riley has a good chance for the former, and should team up with Fletcher to give the Redskins the quality production they need in the middle. What do you think?