WFT Burning Questions: Will LBs hold their own in WFT's defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
* With training camp just around the corner, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux takes a look at one burning question for each position group on Washington's roster. Next up: linebacker.
Will Washington's LB corps hold their own in Washington's defense?
The Washington Football Team had one of the best defenses in all of football a season ago, but much of the credit for the success belongs to its dominant defensive front. Between Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Tim Settle and Ryan Kerrigan, the team had arguably the best front four in the NFL last fall.
It wasn't just Washington's front that stood out, though, as the secondary exceeded expectations, too. Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby each shined at times, while then-rookie Kamren Curl excelled replacing Landon Collins. Both cornerback Jimmy Moreland and safety Jeremy Reaves showed plenty of promise at times, too.
If there was a weak link in Jack Del Rio's unit in 2020, it was at linebacker. The group wasn't bad by any means, but the position lacked the high-end talent that the other two levels of the defense had. Without that sideline-to-sideline backer that is so key in today's NFL, Washington's defense felt like it was missing a piece last fall.
One year later, linebacker remains the biggest positional question mark on Washington's defense. But, it's not like Ron Rivera and his staff didn't address it this offseason. They did. Now, those players must prove they were worth the investment.
If Washington's linebackers are to take a step forward in 2020, it starts and ends with 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis. Yes, that's a lot of pressure on a rookie, but there's a reason why the Burgundy and Gold chose him 19th overall.
On paper, Davis brings that sideline-to-sideline ability that Washington's defense desperately needs. He's incredibly fast for his position -- evident by his 4.4 forty time -- and was considered one of the most athletic linebacker prospects in recent memory.
Davis was also incredibly productive at Kentucky last fall, as he notched over 100 tackles in just 10 games to go along with three interceptions, including a pick-six, and 4.5 tackles for loss.
"All the physical attributes you want, had great production last year - 100 tackles in 10 games, over 100 tackles in 10 games," general manager Martin Mayhew said on draft night. "He checks that box and then he checks the box of being a great football character guy. He fits us, he fits what we're trying to do and he fits our culture."
Del Rio and head coach Ron Rivera are no strangers to what good linebacker play looks like. Both coaches played the position in the NFL and have coached some of the best at the position, including Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
"He understands our culture, tremendous background, the kind of background I look for," Rivera said on Davis on draft night. "Very smart, intelligent young man, plays the game at the right tempo. He understands what they do and that will translate very well with how we do things. He's the kind of fit in terms of position flex. He can play all of our linebacker positions, he has the athletic ability. He's what you look for in a football player."
Recently, we've seen how quickly elite young linebackers can transform defenses. Just look at what Devin White has done in Tampa Bay, Fred Warner in San Francisco and Darius Leonard in Indianapolis. If Davis is even close to as good as those three, Washington struck gold with that selection.
While a lot is riding on Davis' shoulders, Washington has two other linebackers that are expected to play critical roles in Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic.
Bostic, who's entering his third season with the team, has led Washington in tackles in each of the last two seasons. Holcomb, who started 15 games as a rookie in 2019, finished with over 100 tackles that campaign, too.
While neither Bostic nor Holcomb possesses the physical traits that Davis does, both have proven to be productive. Davis' arrival should only help both of them, as the overall position group should be much stronger than it was one year ago.
One other name to keep an eye on is second-year pro Khaleke Hudson. The 2020 sixth-rounder impressed at times during the team's offseason practice sessions and figures to be the top reserve linebacker.
Hudson also has the ability to play multiple positions -- he played plenty of safety at Michigan -- and positional versatility is something Rivera and his staff love. Hudson should see more snaps than he did one year ago anyway, but could be poised for an even larger role should something happen to one of the starters.
Entering training camp, linebacker is still the weakest of the three units on defense. Much of the front four from 2020 remains, while secondary additions of William Jackson III and Bobby McCain should only make that group better.
But, just because the unit is currently the weakest doesn't mean it's not talented. Playing behind a dominant front and in front of an improved secondary should only help Bostic, Holcomb and Davis moving forward.
The bottom line is this: if Washington's linebackers are able to take a step forward from last season, the defense as a whole could be the NFL's best. That's the truth.