Washington needs a draft solution to its Ezekiel Elliott problem
Dallas rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott ran wild on virtually every opponent he faced last year, division rival Washington certainly included. In two games against the Redskins, he racked up a total of 180 yards rushing and three touchdowns while forcing six missed tackles.
Throughout the season, Washington struggled on run defense, and in particular starting inside linebackers Mason Foster and Will Compton. Foster had a passable 77.5 run grade for the season, but his two worst games of the season came against Dallas, where he posted run-defense grades of 41.0 and 41.7. Compton put up a run-defense grade of 81.1 in the Week 2 matchup, but in Week 12 against the same Cowboys his grade plummeted to 44.5, just below his season grade of 45.7 in the category. In those two games he posted just three defensive stops while missing three tackles.
Considering Compton also had struggles in coverage, it was no surprise to see Washington sign Zach Brown in free agency. While Brown has consistently had his own struggles against the run throughout his career, he has developed into a strong coverage linebacker, posting an 81.0 grade last season.
As tempting as it could be to draft a blue-chip prospect at the position in the first round of the draft, like Alabama’s Reuben Foster or Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, with Brown and Foster’s abilities in coverage (not to mention Foster finishing sixth among all inside linebackers last season in tackling efficiency), this isn’t an essential strategy. Washington is in a good position to address other serious needs in the early rounds, and look for a run-stopping specialist in the middle rounds to serve as an upgrade on first and second down to Brown and Compton.
Ohio’s Blair Brown looks to be exactly the type of player capable of filling that role for the Redskins. While his size and lack of top-end speed are likely to limit his abilities in coverage and push him to the third or fourth round, he was an outstanding run defender at the college level, and possesses the instincts needed to quickly translate his game to the NFL.
First and foremost, he is an outstanding tackler. He ranked first among all FBS inside linebackers in 2016, as he missed just three times while racking up 96 solo tackles. Second, he is excellent at both avoiding and taking on blocks at the line of scrimmage, in large part because he is so quick to read and react to the play that he is able to beat blockers to the point of attack. He is consistently the aggressor, which allows him to either avoid blocks entirely or set his man with proper leverage in order to hold his ground and control his gap assignments. He is also effective on outside runs, as he is able to pursue while still staying square to his targets, which allows him to adjust to cutbacks.
This last skill is critical to stopping Dallas’ run game, as Elliott’s ability to set up blocks and find cutback lanes in the Cowboys’ zone-running scheme is what makes him so consistently dangerous. We love Chicago’s Danny Trevathan as a comparison to Brown, as Trevathan is also a premium run defender despite lacking impressive bulk. With Washington in the unique situation of not having to force a rookie linebacker into coverage duties this season, Brown is an obvious fit and ideal mid-round selection.