Leonard Hankerson is going to have a breakout year.
That was the assumption when the Washington Redskins began their 2012-13 season, but the wide receiver never appeared to fully recover from a hip injury and he failed to live up to expectations.
Now entering his third NFL season, this may be Hankerson's last chance to become the player his coaches think he can become.
It seems that two of Washington's starting wide receiver positions are already locked up with Pierre Garcon as the No. 1 and Santana Moss operating from the slot. Realistically, that leaves Hankerson and Josh Morgan fighting for time on the field.
Aldrick Robinson will make some appearances and Dezmon Briscoe could remain on the roster while unknown guys like Lance Lewis could also be a factor. However, Hankerson and Morgan are the ones in line for the No. 2 job.
Neither had a spectacular season in 2012-13, and it’s actually unfair to compare two players who have different styles.
Hankerson is the one you look for to beat his defender on the outside and when taking shots downfield. Morgan is a short-to-intermediate possession receiver who will pick up crucial first downs and make the tough catch. Morgan is also a much better blocker than Hankerson, which is crucial within this Redskins offense.
That could mean they split playing time according to the game situation, and with Morgan in a contract year, it’s a safe bet that he’ll put himself on the line every play. Even without making any sort of decision regarding “make-or-break years,” a good showing this season would do wonders for Hankerson.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume Hankerson gets a pass for his rookie year. That goes for last year too, seeing as he was coming off a difficult rehab. While that is all forgivable, there were also worrisome signs during his time on the field that could bleed into his play this season.
Much has been written about Redskins receivers' drops, and Hankerson did drop five passes in 2012-13. Morgan dropped four and is considered the safer option. With 13 more targets than Hankerson, it’s not much of a difference—and neither is really acceptable—but that’s not the main problem with Hankerson’s development.
Since returning from his injury, Hankerson has showed considerable reluctance to go over the middle and catch the difficult ball, particularly when it’s forced into tight windows. He seemed reticent to take hits and too willing to go to the ground. Even on his 2012-13 highlights, there are hardly any yards after the catch. For someone with his size and speed, that’s not good enough.
That is somewhat understandable after three months of rehab and then surgery, but if Hankerson isn’t fully dialed in to the game, he will keep dropping passes. It doesn't take long for the “inconsistent” tag to stick.
Hankerson is 6’2 and 211 pounds, so should be able to tough it out with the corners and come down with the ball. Watching film of his performances last year, there were too many times when he could have made the catch, but short-armed the pass as he anticipated contact.
This was particularly evident in the Redskins' 31-28 loss to the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 2 of last season, which may have been why Robert Griffin III targeted Morgan on crucial third downs later in the season.
That’s not to say that Hankerson had an awful 2012-13, either. Later in the season, there were times when he looked like the player who racked up 1,156 yards and 13 touchdowns his senior year at the University of Miami.
In Washington's 38-21 win at Cleveland in Week 15—tellingly with Kirk Cousins at QB—Hankerson looked more comfortable in his routes and in going up for the ball. Coming off a bootleg, Cousins threw into triple coverage and Hankerson made the catch, rolling in for a 54-yard touchdown. Cousins looked for him again in the same game, finding him in the end zone for a 2-yard score.
Hankerson came up with some useful catches against Baltimore too that enabled the Redskins to keep the chains moving in a 31-28 overtime win in Week 14. If he is in space, Griffin will find him easily and pick up first downs. In coverage, Hankerson is a different proposition and it just seems like there are other receivers who Griffin trusts a little bit more.
So does Hankerson have to put up big numbers this year in order to remain on the team?
It’s difficult to answer, but while the third year is often the time that NFL receivers find their stride and start to make some waves, Hankerson has missed significant time with an injury that stalled his progress. A good preseason should see him go into Washington's Week 1 matchup with the Eagles with a lot of confidence.
With that in mind, it’s unfair to state that Hankerson has to succeed this season to stay in Washington. However, if he has another inconsistent year, this is one argument that will have a very different tone next offseason.
For now, Hankerson deserves the chance to succeed. If he can put his injury and contact issues behind him, he’ll be a real playmaker on the team.