What We've Learned About Every Positional Unit so Far in Redskins' Preseason
Washington's first preseason game began with an end zone somersault in Western New York. But after squeaking by the Bills 7-6, questions remain, as the Redskins seek to whittle down their roster to 53 men by September 2.
Close wins are good for the ego in exhibition games, but Washington didn't exactly light the world on fire in Week 1. So, let's examine the good, the bad and the ugly among each positional unit as they prepare for another road tilt in Chicago on Saturday.
Mike Shanahan cracked up Buffalo's Chan Gailey after the Redskins 7-6 win. AP
What were these coaches smiling about?
Perhaps they were happy that their teams got out of their first preseason game relatively unscathed. Or maybe they were joking about the cut down days ahead, when teams wield an ax on 37 guys who fail to make their rosters.
I'm kidding around of course. But so were head coaches Chan Gailey and Mike Shanahan, who rarely show emotion, in person or on the sidelines.
During the contest, both men did their best to show each other nothing, which is common in the preseason. But Shanahan did a wonderful job of calling plays for his first-string offense.
Day one of cuts is August 28, when 90 players will be reduced to 80. That means "bubble" guys have the next two weeks to showcase themselves in the dog days of days summer.
Shanahan has been around long enough to realize what the preseason means to the men who take the field. So each year he does his best to give every hopeful an equal chance.
Shanny is also one of the NFL's best evaluators, especially when it comes to uncovering diamonds in the rough.
Remember running back Terrell Davis? He was a sixth-round draft choice that made the Denver Broncos, after he laid out a returner on special teams, during a preseason game. We all know how he turned out.
RGIII stood tall in the pocket against the Bills. Washington Post
As Mike Shanahan stated weeks ago, Robert Griffin III is the Redskins starter at quarterback. Period, end of story. And against the Bills, he sure looked the part, with four completions for 70 yards and a touchdown pass.
So what more have we learned about Robert and the men who will back him up?
First, let me be short with Rex Grossman (2-10, 22 yards) and rookie third-stringer Kirk Cousins (9-22, 74 yards, 1 INT). If they play the way they did moving forward, Cousins could be No. 2 and Grossman may have trouble suiting up. I wrote the words "could" and "may", so let's leave it at that and move on.
At this point, it's obvious that Griffin will get the majority of reps in practice because his snap count will increase as the preseason progresses.
Coach Mike Shanahan will also continue to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him, which appears to be a-okay with RGIII.
From the moment he was drafted second overall, Griffin has seemed wise beyond his years. He's just 22, but he has acted and performed like a seasoned pro during OTAs, minicamp, training camp and now the preseason.
Tight end Chris Cooley has been so impressed, he put Griffin in the company of a late, great teammate of his.
According to Mark Maske of the Washington Post, Cooley said "Griffin is only the second Redskins rookie he has seen (since Sean Taylor), [to] arrive in the NFL and immediately carry himself with the confidence and demeanor of an established player."
Most rookies freeze when faced with pressure and notoriety, but RGIII has been calm, cool and collected.
“I never see doubt in that kid’s mind," said Cooley, (per the Post). “I haven’t seen anything from him to say that he’s a rookie."
Coach Shanahan and his son Kyle deserve credit for putting Griffin in position to make plays from inside the pocket, which he did with relative ease against Buffalo. His adherence to doing so has been telling because God knows he has the talent to do so much more.
My bet is we'll continue to see a patient Griffin, who won't be mobile unless he desperately needs to be. The roll outs and boot legs will appear in time, but for now, the Redskins will stay conservative to keep RGIII's hopes up and his body upright.
Evan Royster appeared tentative at times in Buffalo. AP
According to Preston Williams of the Washington Post, "Tim Hightower is no fan of sitting and watching." But that's what he did against Buffalo and may have to do for the forseeable future.
Torn ACLs have a tendency to heal on their own time, no matter how determined a player is to get back on the field. An ultra-conservative head coach doesn't help Hightower's chances either.
“We don’t want to throw him up here too quick, said coach Mike Shanahan," via the Post.
Hightower was originally expected to go full bore by the third week of the preseason, but Shanahan has become wishy-washy on the halfback's timetable.
“I’m not sure about the third game or the fourth game, but we’re going to make a decision [that's] based on what is best for him,” added Shanahan.
Fortunately for Hightower, there may not be anyone standing in his way, upon his return.
Evan Royster's performance was lackluster against Buffalo, with just 21 yards on seven carries. In the meantime, Roy Helu is battling a sore Achilles heel and may not suit up against the Bears.
“It’s kind of out of nowhere," said Helu, via the Post. "It’s just been [getting worse] throughout the weeks. I’ve had it in the past, but not to where it is now.”
In the meantime, the arrow is pointing up for sixth-round draft choice Alfred Morris. Morris already earned a high-five from Shanahan at training camp and after a 15-carry, 54-yard performance last week, there may be more hand slaps to come. Morris runs like a bull and the unsettled situation among his peers could give him the chance of a lifetime, if he continues to impress.
"Count Pierre" is ready to take a bite out of the NFC. AP
The chemistry between Robert Griffin III and free agent acquisition Pierre Garçon already looks sparkling. Against Buffalo, the two connected three times for 58 yards and a score in the first quarter alone.
But their most impressive hook-up wasn't on the touchdown screen they ran. Instead, it came on a 20-yard pass play, in which RGIII looked off three receivers before finding Garçon.
Griffin received heaps of praise for his overall play, but he deflected most of it to his newest go-to guy.
[Pierre's] confident going across the middle because he knows nobody can really punish him," said Griffin, via the Washington Times. "He’s definitely an explosive receiver. Got great hands, downfield speed, and he’s big and tough. So I think he’s got the total package."
Leonard Hankerson can be explosive too, but he's coming off of hip surgery and needs to get his legs under him. Hankerson had just one catch for 12 yards against the Bills, but once he is 100 percent, he has the potential to take hold of the No. 2 spot across from Garçon.
According to Mike Jones of WashingtonPost.com, Hankerson will need to hold off another free agent newcomer who is returning from a broken leg.
"Josh Morgan - after a week on the sideline - had a decent showing in the preseason opener," wrote Jones. Morgan finished with four catches for 49 yards.
Santana Moss is a sure bet to be RGIII's slot guy, which leaves at least four receivers to battle for two spots. That competition will be decided over the next two weeks, as Anthony Armstrong returns from a shoulder injury and Brandon Banks attempts to right himself after a poor showing in Buffalo.
Mike Shanahan warned Banks in June that he had to make the team as a receiver, so he's off to a bad start. That may open the door for Aldrick Robinson or Terrance Austin to walk through. If I were a betting man, I'd go with the electrifying Robinson over Banks or Austin.
Paul's mistakes could put him in Shanahan's doghouse. Buffalo News
What a difference a game makes.
Prior to training camp, coach Mike Shanahan compared Niles Paul to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who Shanahan converted from wide receiver to tight end in Denver.
Paul is fast like Sharpe and has a body type like Sharpe, but (so far) the similarities stop there.
Paul caught one ball for 11 yards, but dropped three he would like to have back. Normally that percentage isn't conducive to making a roster, but Paul believes he can overcome his below-average start.
I had those drops, which, no excuses. Those are just me dropping the ball, said Paul, via The Washington Times. "Me and Sean [McVay, the tight ends coach] are actually putting in extra work because it almost seemed like I spent so much time focusing on blocking that I forget that I’m still a receiver at the end of the day.
According to Washington Times writer Rich Campbell, Paul is going to alter his practice habits. As a rookie receiver last year, his routine "included catching 100 balls before practice and 50 after," wrote Campbell. "He had not been doing that this summer because [of] the blocking techniques required as a tight end."
Those blocking and receiving skills are "old hat" for veteran Chris Cooley, who saw time at fullback against Buffalo, in place of the injured Darrel Young. But were 10 snaps at the position a bad sign for Chris' future?
Cooley is on the bubble because of his salary and the Redskins may consider trading him, if they can get something in return. If the team cannot get value, it could force Cooley to restructure his contract to play another season in Burgundy and Gold.
If that occurs, Paul will have to beat out Logan Paulsen for the No. 3 spot. Paulsen doesn't have the athleticism of Paul, but he started six games last year, when starter Fred Davis was suspended.
At this point, the tight end position is volatile because of the cost of Cooley, the inexperience of Paul and the substance abuse past of Davis.
A patchwork O-Line played well in Washington's preseason opener. AP
First the good news. All that limping Trent Williams did after the Bills game was not as serious as it looked. The Redskins left tackle returned to practice this week, but was careful not re-aggravate the bone bruise on his left foot.
According to CBS DC, Williams and right guard Chris Chester are expected to play in Chicago on Saturday. Chester has been sidelined with an ankle sprain since early August.
The bad news is there's no telling when the team's starting five will be back together again at full strength.
Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger says he'll be back by the season opener, but that's no guarantee.
Meanwhile, his replacement (Maurice Hurt) remains hurt with inflammation in his left knee. According to the Washington Times' Rich Campbell, Hurt practiced Wednesday, but in limited fashion.
If there is anything to be grateful for, it may be all the action the Redskins' backups are getting.
Right tackle Tyler Polumbus has done an admirable job in place of injured starter Jammal Brown. And Adam Gettis and rookie Josh LeRibeus deserve a tip of the hat for performing well in Buffalo, as the Redskins kept Mario Williams and the Bills vaunted pass rush away from RGIII (zero sacks).
Polumbus, Gettis and LeRibeus now need to put in some work on their run blocking, which appeared to be lacking during the game.
Another backup who could make the roster is tackle Jordan Black, who is eating his way back into "playing shape" after being called out of retirement to help the Skins. For more on Black's comeback, check out this column from SI.com.
The Skins D-Line got penetration against Buffalo. Washington Post
It's never a good thing to lose depth along the defensive line, especially when your team has Jim Haslett as its coordinator. But Haslett will have to make due without backup nose tackle Chris Neild.
Nield will miss the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee, but according to Washington Examiner writer John Keim, he may have had trouble making the rotation that Haslett likes to administer.
Neild would have had a tough time making it this season with the emergence of Chris Baker, who was among the early training camp standouts. Baker can play end or nose; Neild was strictly a run-stopping nose tackle.
So there you have it. The Redskins lose Barry Cofield's backup from last year, but gain a more versatile substitute.
We have learned that Washington's D-Line can be dominant because they looked that way against the Bills. According to ExtremeSkins.com, the unit did "an excellent job getting extension on Buffalo's offensive line," which allowed defenders to gain separation, on their way to making tackles.
As noted above, Jim Haslett loves to rotate numerous defensive linemen throughout a game. So be prepared for more of the same in Chicago.
As ESPN.com's Dan Graziano suggests, the Redskins are deep with "Cofield, Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker as starters and the likes of Jarvis Jenkins and Baker on the bench."
On Saturday, it will be interesting to see how dirty Jay Cutler's jersey gets, when he attempts to direct the Bears starting offense.
Brian Orakpo helped to terrorize Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick. AP
If Washington's defensive line was dominant against Buffalo, what would be an appropriate word to describe the Redskins linebackers?
We could ask Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but I believe he's still speechless one week later.
Let's just say there is a lot to like. As the Washington Examiner's John Keim points out "Brian Orakpo lined up in a four-point stance the entire first series" and the Bills went three and out in a hurry.
With an impressive blend of power moves and speed off the edge, Orakpo makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, but he also frees up his cohorts to add additional pressure and shut down running lanes.
According to ESPN's Dan Graziano, "Ryan Kerrigan needs to refine his all-around game entering his second season." Graziano also claims that "some say Orakpo needs to develop another move."
I say: "Dan needs to watch the Skins linebackers more closely and he should come clean with his sources."
Against the Bills, Washington's backers were relentless, thanks to the stellar play of the defensive line and some nifty play-calling by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Kerrigan recorded a sack and Orakpo's "still developing" moves allowed London Fletcher and Perry Riley to take shots at Fitzpatrick.
A nice competition has also developed between heavy hitter Chris Wilson and second-year man Markus White. But CBS DC's Grant Paulsen thinks that there is only one more outside linebacker spot to be had. Give the edge to Wilson, who was named Player of the Game against the Bills, with five total tackles, including three solo.
According to Keim, "the Redskins [No. 1 defense] sent five rushers nine times in their 11 plays [against the Bills]." They also stayed ultra-aggressive, by using "zone blitzes and [by sending] defenders from the slot."
Richard Crawford is slowly but surely making a name for himself. AP
Competition is alive and well between the handful of safeties vying to make Washington's 53-man roster.
Free agent addition and former Tampa Bay Buc Tanard Jackson has turned heads as a hitter so far, but he is in a dogfight with four other veterans for a starting position. Jackson has a strong relationship with Redskins secondary coach Raheem Morris, who was Tanard's head coach in Tampa.
According to Mike Jones of the Washington Post, Brandon Meriweather and Madieu Williams are the front-runners, with returnees Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes on the outside looking in. The unit also includes rookie Jordan Bernstine.
"I think Bernstine is doing a nice job," said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, via the Post. "He’s really athletic, and I think he’s going to be a good player. So, you’ve got six players vying for however many spots, and the practice squad. It’s a good situation to be in.”
Four Washington cornerbacks appear to be set with starters DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, nickleback Cedric Griffin and backup corner Kevin Barnes.
But the holder of a potential fifth spot looks promising.
According to CBS DC's Grant Paulsen, the men to watch are Richard Crawford and Brandyn Thompson. But there is no doubt that Crawford is the one to beat.
In addition to being all around the ball in camp, Crawford was a hawk against Buffalo, with an interception of reserve quarterback Tyler Thigpen that halted a Bills drive in the second quarter.
According to Mike Jones of the Washington Post, Crawford is drawing rave reviews from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for his versatility.
'“I like Crawford. He loves football,” Haslett said on Tuesday. “He works. He’ll do anything. He’ll play nickel, corner, dime and he’ll punt return, so he does a lot of different things.”'
I'd say that's a ringing endorsement for the 2012 seventh-round draft pick.
Competition is getting fierce between Graham Gano (4) and Neil Rackers. Washington Post
Richard Crawford's chances of making the Redskins final roster were heightened against Buffalo with a combination of strong defense and stellar special teams play.
According to Redskins.com, Crawford "didn't look like a rookie when he got his chances, returning punts for 42 yards (14 yards per return), highlighted by a 17-yard scamper in the third quarter."
Crawford's effort coupled with Brandon Banks' poor showing at receiver has put the dynamic Banks in a precarious position. He simply cannot afford another bad night in Chicago, so he better right his wrongs. According to the Washington Examiner's John Keim, durability is also a concern for Banks, who has suffered from a knee problem in the past.
Others vying to grab a receiver/returner spot are Aldrick Robinson and Terrence Austin. Austin is shifty, but Robinson appears to have the edge at receiver with an impressive camp.
Washington's coverage units should be above average if punter Sav Rocca can repeat his performance from a year ago. The Examiner's Keim points out that "Rocca was inconsistent with his hang-time vs.Buffalo and again in practice Saturday," but he improved the second to last day of camp (on Tuesday).
And finally, the battle between placekickers "will come down to their production in actual games," said special teams coach Danny Smith, via the Washington Post.
Here's what we know:
Neither kicker attempted a field goal against the Bills and Gano kicked Washington's only extra point.
Graham Gano is 11 years younger than Neil Rackers, but age has a habit of winning out when a team has weapons to move the ball with (i.e John Kasay in New Orleans).
History also suggests that Rackers can handle the pressure more than Gano. According to the Associated Press, "Rackers has been one of the NFL’s most productive kickers during his 12 seasons, converting 80 percent of his field goal tries and ranking ninth [in scoring] among active kickers.
And according to Keim, Gano could have made all five of the kicks he had blocked last year and still would have finished with a lower percentage than Rackers had in three of his past four seasons.
Rackers also thinks he's improved with age.
"I’ve been hitting the ball well," said the 35-year old kicker, via the AP.
I’m going to do this until 32 teams tell me no. If someone wants to give me a job at 70, I’ll do it then, too.