Yesterday the Cleveland Browns parted ways with their top inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, in an effort to free up some money from the salary cap and probably more importantly to reshape the defense under their new coaching staff. While Jackson has been a good player for the Browns he was coming off a down season, his cap hit was going to rise by $3 million, and Cleveland has so many resources in terms of money and draft picks that they should easily be able to address the position. Jackson now hits an open market and is free to sign with a team prior to the start of free agency as he is set to turn 31 next year. The Redskins are in the market for two starting inside linebackers and Jackson is a player they could lock up now and fill one of those needs.
Jackson is coming off a disappointing year for the Browns, but the prior two seasons Jackson was a highly productive player on the Browns and one of the better inside/middle linebackers in the league. Jackson shows great instincts and vision in getting to the football, is a sure tackler and has the speed to chase down backs. While not thought of as a great cover guy or blitzer, Jackson has shown the ability to do both well and isn’t typically a liability in those areas. Jackson’s greatest strength though on the field is being that leader or field general making the calls. Though London Fletcher’s play fell off dramatically these past two years he was such a student of the game that he still had some positive effect by putting people in the right place. The Redskins biggest problem was of course just not having the talent to execute those calls. Jackson is similar to Fletcher in terms of his knowledge and study of the game, and he’s the type of field general the Redskins should want out there. While he was down a little across the board this past year, it wasn’t that he was actually “bad” per se, just that he wasn’t necessarily playing up to his previous level of play and that contract. The Redskins should expect at least the level of play from last year (which would be an upgrade), and there is no reason to believe that he can’t bounce back for a couple more years of high level play.
The Jackson opportunity is very similar to the Ravens situation last offseason. The Ravens were watching their star veteran linebacker retire and had a young linebacker set to hit unrestricted free agency. Now there are some differences as the Ravens young LB Ellerbe wasn’t a fulltime starter like Perry Riley has been for the past 2 1/2 years. But Ellerbe also had something that Riley didn’t have, and that was experience at the Mike LB spot. Ellerbe took over Lewis’s role in 2012 when Lewis was hurt and was highly productive in that time. So while Ellerbe wasn’t a fulltime starter, he proved himself at the tougher position and was more productive. In the end Ravens not only watched Ray Lewis walk away, but they let Ellerbe sign a big deal in Miami. To replace them the Ravens picked up Daryl Smith on a cheap 1 year $1.125 million deal after he was cut from the Jaguars. Smith was 31 at the time and had to settle for a soft market. The Ravens came away big winners though as Smith had a really good year and out produced Ellerbe at a fraction of the cost.
Now Jackson likely won’t sign for just a year or at just over $1 million, but his contract will likely be quite a bargain comparatively. Perry Riley is rumored to be searching for a deal similar to Ellerbe’s at $7 million a year (worth noting that the Dolphins already regret this deal), and with the significant increase in the salary cap and the bar set in that area some team could be dumb enough to give him that money. Even if Riley settles for a “Team Friendly” deal you are still looking at an average of about $5 million a year. And since Riley is younger he will push to make it a 5 year deal, which locks up a lot of money going forward. Jackson on the other hand isn’t going to cost nearly that much. He will probably average between $2.5-3.5 million a year, and should max out at about a 3 year deal. Jackson’s contract at worst would probably be 3 years $10.5 million, compared to the low end deal of 5 years and $25 million for Riley. It’s clear that Jackson is the better value and that is just if their production is similar. In all likelihood Jackson will far outplay Riley, as he has done in each of the last 3 seasons (even last year Jackson’s down year). Also Jackson has proven that he can handle that Mike role and be in charge of all the calls on the defense, something that Riley simply hasn’t had to do. The only benefit with Riley is that he’s younger and you would have a reasonable expectation of him being able to play that 4th and 5th year of his deal. That could be a benefit if Riley develops and starts playing at a higher level. But if his level of production remains at or around average, the Redskins would probably be looking to get out of that contract. That means they’d either need to pay Riley more than he’s worth or take a dead cap hit in that situation.
Now it really doesn’t have to be an either/or situation with Jackson or Riley, the Redskins could sign Jackson to replace Fletcher and keep Riley in the role that he’s been in the past few years. The combined salaries of Jackson and Riley (assuming the low end on Riley) would be manageable to fill two starting roles, and the Redskins have some cap room to use. The issue becomes though should they devote that much of their resources on the position. Particularly when Jackson is a 2-3 year answer and Riley has been pretty average at best. With so many needs the Redskins shouldn’t pay good money, particularly over a long term basis for just average production. That is really why i think the Redskins shouldn’t get into the Perry Riley market unless his price completely drops and he becomes a bargain. The Redskins need at least one solid starting ILB, and that is where a guy like Jackson really comes in. He’s going to be cheaper and more productive than a Riley, so it’s a win-win for the Redskins. Washington could then look to follow the Ravens plan again and draft an early round ILB to pair next to their veteran ILB (this part didn’t workout as well in year one for the Ravens, but still a sound strategy). That way Jackson could help teach the guy and groom him to take over in 2-3 years.
While many will point to the fact that Jackson played his college ball at Maryland or the fact that a former Browns outside linebackers coach Brian Baker is now a member of the Redskins staff as a reason why Jackson should be a target. While both of those are interesting, they are just the icing on the cake for why Jackson should be a top target for the Redskins. Jackson brings everything to the table that the Redskins are looking for: on and off the field leadership, production, instincts, and a reasonable contract. Jackson checks every box the Redskins should be looking at for this role, and given that he was cut the Redskins could sign him immediately. While there is some risk of overpaying him relative to the market value by signing him now, as long as the contract demands are reasonable (see above) it makes sense for the Redskins. Sure if the Redskins wait, maybe they get him at 3 years $7.5 million versus $9.5-10.5 million, but they also risk losing him and not having a viable option.