Very quietly, H.B. Blades has put himself into a position where he could be a full-time starter for the Redskins in 2009.
Blades was an injury replacement for Marcus Washington last year and started five games.
With Washington released this offseason, Blades could emerge as a front-runner to start at strong-side linebacker.
Chris Wilson and Alfred Fincher are also in the mix. (Wilson would convert from defensive end, where he has played the last two seasons.)
And the Redskins could address the linebacker position in the NFL Draft, scheduled for April 25-26.
For now, Blades has the most experience at strong-side linebacker of anyone on the defense. He posted 60 tackles and one pass defended last year.
Blades' workmanlike approach has earned him respect in the locker room and among the coaches.
He knows it's too soon to focus on a starting job. The competition will come in OTAs, mini-camp and--ultimately--training camp.
Blades is thought to be a natural middle linebacker--it's the position he played at Pittsburgh. Given his 5-10, 250-pound frame, Blades is in the mold of London Fletcher.
Like Fletcher, he has developed a reputation for good football instincts, sound tackling and durability.
With Fletcher still among the top middle linebackers in the league, Blades must adapt to playing on the outside.
"It's kind of funny--during the season I studied middle linebacker all week because I had to know those calls," Blades said. "And then on Sundays I'd have to switch to outside linebacker.
"So I have everything down with knowing middle linebacker and knowing all of the calls, and also knowing everything on the strong-side and weak-side as well."
Fletcher is similar in size at 5-10 and 245 pounds. What has Blades learned as Fletcher's understudy?
"You just learn how to use your body to your advantage," Blades said. "We're shorter guys, we're stout guys, but at the same time we can fit in space that other linebackers can't fit in.
"It's the leverage, because we're shorter than everybody. It gives us the opportunity to do a lot of things that other linebackers can't do."
Said defensive coordinator Greg Blache: "They tell H.B. he is not big enough, not fast enough, not good-looking enough, but yet he gets it done. He's a guy who plays tough and that's the good thing about him. He goes out and does what we ask him to do."
Blades was the Redskins' sixth-round draft pick in 2007, the same year that the team signed Fletcher.
So Blades has had time to learn his craft at the NFL level.
This year, he plays behind newly signed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the Redskins' marquee free agent pickup.
Haynesworth's presence--all 6-6 and 320 pounds of him--should allow the strong-side linebacker to attack the line of scrimmage more aggressively.
"He'll help by keeping [offensive] linemen off of [the linebackers]," Blades said. "They like to come up on us real fast on some plays. Haynesworth is going to be tough because they are going to have to keep 2-3 linemen on him at a time.
"If that happens, somebody is going to be running around free. Playing behind him, it should be open season for us."