With the departure of linebacker Antonio Pierce in free agency, the Redskins will have a new look in the middle of the defense next season. The team has several options to fill the void at middle linebacker, including Mike Barrow, Lemar Marshall and prospects available in April's NFL Draft.
In looking at recent history, the Redskins have had steady turnover at the middle linebacker position dating back to 1990. From 1979-89, Neal Olkewicz, one of the 70 Greatest Redskins, started 137 games at middle linebacker.
Since Olkewicz retired, the position has been manned by a number of different players, including Kurt Gouveia, Matt Millen, Marvcus Patten, Derek Smith and Jeremiah Trotter, but no one has started for more than two consecutive seasons. Last year, it was Pierce who stepped into the position when Barrow was sidelined for the season with knee tendinitis.
Pierce had a remarkable season for a player who previously had been a reserve and had never played the middle linebacker position. He led the team with 160 tackles (109 solo) and logged two interceptions, one forced fumble and one sack.
The fourth-year player signed a lucrative deal with the New York Giants on March 3.
Earlier this month, head coach Joe Gibbs mentioned Barrow and Lemar Marshall as options to replace Pierce. It's also possible that the team could address the middle linebacker position in April's NFL Draft.
"When you lose a starter, you have to consider every option and all the players we have," Gibbs said. "We are going to make the best logical choices that we can, everything from moving a player currently with us to play that position or hopefully seeing if Mike Barrow can play."
Barrow is a 12-year NFL vet who has experience playing for Redskins' assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams. Barrow played in Houston from 1993-96 when Williams was a defensive assistant coach with the Oilers. Barrow came to the Redskins after a solid 2003 campaign with the New York Giants in which he led the Giants' defense with 177 tackles (122 solo).
Last year, Barrow's knee tendinitis kept him out of the lineup all season long. Despite being listed as questionable for a number of games, he was never activated. He was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 24.
Team officials were concerned that Barrow's injury could be career-threatening, but Barrow has apparently worked hard this offseason and is, according to Gibbs, ahead of schedule on his rehab.
"Certainly I think Mike could be a person who hopefully could help solve the problem," Gibbs said. "He has been working out and going to treatment. We hope that the knee won't be an issue."
Like Pierce, Marshall moved into a starting role due to injury last year. He started 14 games for LaVar Arrington at outside linebacker and produced 82 tackles (52 solo) and 1.5 sacks. The Redskins re-signed Marshall, who was a restricted free agent, on Feb. 17.
Arrington is set to return after missing most of last season with a knee injury and that means Marshall could be moved to middle linebacker. While Marshall (6-2, 228 pounds) is listed as 12 pounds lighter than Pierce (6-1, 240 pounds), it's expected that Marshall's speed in attacking the line of scrimmage will be an asset.
Asked if Marshall was too light to play middle linebacker, Gibbs replied: "Antonio was not a big linebacker. I think we are going to look at all of our options. [Linebackers coach] Dale Lindsey has been doing a phenomenal job as far as training guys. We are working very closely."
On Marshall, Gibbs said: "I think Lemar stepped up last year when he got an opportunity. I like the way, when given the chance, he stepped up in the gap and played extremely hard for us. We honored that with a new contract and got the deal done."
Clifton Smith and Brandon Barnes are two young middle linebackers who may get an extended look this offseason. Both have had minimal NFL game action, though, and it's expected that they will compete for backup and special teams jobs.
Gibbs also said the team may look at upgrading the middle linebacker position in the April 23-24 NFL Draft.
Among the top prospects available in the draft include: Channing Crowder, Florida; Odell Thurman, Georgia; Barrett Ruud, Nebraska; and Lance Mitchell, Oklahoma.
Since this year's draft class at middle linebacker is regarded as being weaker as compared to previous years, it appears unlikely that the Redskins would spend the 9th overall pick on a middle linebacker.
It's possible, though, that team officials would trade down for multiple picks later in the first round and second round. The extra pick could allow the team enough leeway to address other needs while also potentially picking up a long-term solution at middle linebacker.