Eagle-eyed fans of the Washington Redskins will have noticed an anomaly this year. Mike Shanahan is likely to carry four tight ends on the final 53-man roster, compared to three in his previous three seasons with the team. In addition to the obvious effect on the depth chart, these four players could actually make or break the entire season in Washington.
Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul and Jordan Reed all have different skill sets that should guarantee them a roster spot, if not actual playing time.
Of those four, Davis is the most complete player. However, his presence still comes with a question mark. It’s still unknown how his recently-healed Achilles will hold up in a game situation and all eyes will be on him the first time he anchors his foot to execute a block.
Davis’ blocking has improved a lot over the last two years, but it is his ability as a pass-catcher that makes him so valuable to the team. Davis has speed that the other TEs can’t match, evidenced in his top season as a pro—2011—when he had six games with 80 yards or more, a franchise record.
Again, the Achilles injury will be discussed prior to his first start this season. In order to reach full speed, he will need to have complete confidence in his body—any hesitancy will slow him down.
Before the injury, Davis had developed into a trusted target of Robert Griffin III and was actually the team’s leading receiver before going down in Week 7. Griffin will again require that sort of production, especially if this year sees the young quarterback throw the ball more.
If Davis is the pass-catching tight end, then Paulsen is the blocker. Although he has decent hands and is underrated as a receiver, his primary function in Davis’ absence was to block well and allow others to get open. He picked up a few crucial first downs and showed incredible effort across the season, but still finished with fewer yards than Davis.
There has been a lot of talk over the offseason about defending the read-option. One of the strategies offered is to “hit the quarterback, no matter what” and Griffin’s perceived fragility makes him a prime target for such a tactic.
Whether it’s a linebacker, cornerback or safety, there’s going to be defensive players trying to ambush Griffin on every play. With Paulsen, the Redskins have a TE with the size and ability to negate that extra threat to the quarterback, as well as providing solid run support to give Alfred Morris room to move.
Running two tight end sets with Davis and Paulsen also gives Kyle Shanahan the chance to get Davis open and protect Griffin at the same time.
Against the Buccaneers in 2012, Davis ran the hot route as the Bucs sent a blitz late in the fourth quarter. What should have been a quick checkdown to keep the ball moving turned into a 20-yard gain that set up Griffin’s first game-winning drive. Although it's true that no one on the defense seemed to notice Davis, he used his agility to get out of a tight space and gain significant yards.
Opposing teams know that the Redskins were 9-1 with Pierre Garcon on the field, so shutting him down will be their main priority. Whether this is through double coverage, physicality or simply allocating him to the best corner on the roster, it could free up space elsewhere on the field. With no one emerging as the undisputed No. 2 receiver in 2012, it could fall to the tight ends to pick up the slack.
Elsewhere, Niles Paul and Jordan Reed are somewhat enigmatic at the tight end position. Paul struggled at times with the transition from receiver, looking too preoccupied with his route to properly focus on the play at hand. He dropped passes, too, which further set back his progress. However, with 2012 in the bank he should be much improved in that area and provide a useful option for the team in 2013, both as a blocker and receiver.
Before the startling events of the offseason, Jordan Reed was being favorably compared to Aaron Hernandez, due both to his Florida Gator background and his playing style. Part of the new breed of Joker tight ends, Reed has great hands and the ability to break away from defenders on every reception. Although his recovery from injury is key to his success, the Redskins must have been confident enough in his healing powers to use their third-round pick on a guy they had no intention of drafting before he became available.
Reed's blocking is a severe weak point right now, but it’s unlikely he’ll be used along the line of scrimmage much, a lot like Hernandez wasn’t. If the Redskins continue to use the Pistol, Reed can line up deep so his blocking is less integral to the success of the play, as well as occasionally operating out of the slot to keep the offense fresh and unpredictable.
Although carrying four tight ends inevitably means a roster spot is lost elsewhere, it seems like a beneficial move for a team like the Redskins that thrives on misdirection and irregularity.
Griffin’s injury hangs heavy over Washington going into this season and there will be a lot of emphasis on how he can repeat his 2012 success while remaining healthy. With four tight ends on the roster, the Redskins may already have the answer.