Previewing What Washington Will Be Looking for at the Scouting Combine
Jay Gruden has some holes to fill, and the draft is the best place to do that. The NFL Scouting Combine will offer him a chance to get a closer look at players who could help the team. Washington had some obvious deficiencies at the beginning of last season, but new ones emerged as the year dragged on.
More than just a simple series of drills and interviews, the combine represents another chance to impress a coach and land with an NFL team.
Read on for some examples of what Gruden and his men will be looking for in Indianapolis.
Bigger Offensive Linemen
The offensive line outdid itself in 2012 and the whole team reaped the benefits. Robert Griffin III was given the time he needed to make a play, while tackle Trent Williams established himself as the player he was projected to be when he came out of Oklahoma in 2010.
In 2013, however, the line took a huge nosedive—except Williams, who continued to hold up his end—and the entire offensive production fell as a result.
It didn’t help that receivers were dropping passes, but Griffin was sacked, hurried and pressured into mistakes in every game he started. His injury was clearly bothering him, but the feeling persisted that with a split second more time, he would be able to accomplish much more.
Whether it was not extending plays with his legs or failing to fit throws to receivers in tight windows, Griffin just wasn’t able to repeat the feats of his rookie year.
Gruden’s line when he was offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals were all over 300 pounds, while Washington’s was the lightest in the league last year. Chris Foerster returns to coach the line, so it’s unclear how much the scheme will change from the zone-blocking concepts favored by former head coach Mike Shanahan.
However, after watching Kory Lichtensteiger, Will Montgomery and Tyler Polumbus get run over every week, some extra weight in front of Griffin certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
The linebacker situation in Washington is completely up in the air this offseason.
Perry Riley is a free agent—although the front office should look to re-sign him as soon as possible—while Keenan Robinson hasn’t shown any reliability and London Fletcher has retired. There is room for a rookie to come in and make a name for himself in D.C.
The obvious choice is Shayne Skov from Stanford, whose defensive instincts and sure tackling would be gladly welcomed across a unit that frequently showed neither of those qualities last year.
However, Wisconsin product Chris Borland has similar traits to Skov, and could be acquired in a later round. Borland has played outside in a 4-3, inside in a 4-3 and inside in a 3-4, so he has the versatility required, too.
As noted by Zac Boyer in The Washington Times, he also had four different position coaches in his five years at college, so he’s not averse to thriving in an unfamiliar system. Borland emerged from last season with 112 tackes, four sacks and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. If Borland is on the board in the third round, it will be difficult to pass him by.
Washington could address the linebacker position in free agency, but safety seems like an area crying out for veteran assistance. Jairus Byrd has been mentioned a lot with regard to Washington over the last two seasons, but even with this newfound cap space he's likely to be too expensive.
Assistance over the Middle
Why isn't this slide labeled “wide receivers”? Because the team needs more than just another pass-catcher. It's crying out for someone to go over the middle, to use his body to shield defenders and make tough, contested catches.
Leonard Hankerson has been hesitant in that area ever since his hip injury in 2011, and Aldrick Robinson hasn't been a consistent, reliable option.
Pierre Garcon can't do everything himself, so he needs someone to help out and make some plays when he's got two players covering him. Jordan Reed has huge potential, but his injuries are a real concern.
The obvious player in the draft is Rutgers wide receiver Brandon Coleman. At 6'6” and 220 pounds, he's a big target who has shown a willingness to put himself in harm's way and make a play for his quarterback.
He's knows how to maximize his size in boxing out smaller defenders. His routes are crisp and he's a committed blocker. A production line of coaches and offensive systems at Rutgers has forced Coleman to make the best of some trying situations; his tapes are full of catches where he's adjusting to poorly thrown passes and making tough catches to move the chains.
His problem is consistency, so it's arguable that he's a no better option than someone like Hankerson. Also like Hankerson, Coleman has undergone knee surgery in the last year.
He also doesn't have the speed to breeze past defenders in man coverage, so it will be interesting to see his 40 time at the combine. It's likely to be in the high 4.5s, which could put some teams off.
To make it in the NFL he'll have to do the little things well: work on his route-running, establish a chemistry with an NFL quarterback and hone his blocking until he's a dominant force at the line of scrimmage.
He's got the tools to do all of that. The offensive coaches of whichever team he lands on will hope that they can make Coleman polished enough to have an impact in his rookie year.
The combine offers the chance for the top prospects to cement their positions in the upper echelons of the draft.
However, the event also gives lesser-known guys a chance to make a team fall in love with them. Whether this is through a good performance in the combine drills or in interviews, every player will be looking to make the most of his time in the spotlight.
Without a first-round pick, Gruden and his team will be looking to maximize value across the draft. When Alfred Morris caught Mike Shanahan's eye in the Senior Bowl, it led to great things. The whole league again saw what a late-round pick could do for an NFL team.
That sort of value can transform an entire season for the better.
There are plenty of players that head into the combine with great upside, but also with plenty of question marks.
For instance, the University of Miami's Seantrel Henderson has everything Washington is looking for in an offensive tackle—in principle, anyway. At 6'8” and 345 pounds, he's got the size to protect Griffin, while his size and and athleticism suggests he will dominate in run-blocking.
However, there are character concerns that stem from marijuana-related suspensions in college, along with the fears that he just isn't committed enough to make the most of his potential.
It's a tough decision, but a good impression at the combine could see him make his way up a lot of draft boards. The best outcome for Washington would be for Henderson to perform slightly above expectations and be available in the fifth round.
Upon arrival in the nation's capital, Henderson might be able to stake a claim to a starting spot. With players like Williams to mentor him, Henderson could end up being the best pick Gruden makes in his inaugural draft.
That may seem like a detour into the world of fantasy, but Henderson just needs one chance. Washington seemingly has a spot tailor-made for him, so making the move in the fifth would represent great value.
Defensive Line Depth
With the future of Redskins' defensive linemen Adam Carriker and Stephen Bowen decidedly uncertain, Gruden and his team will be evaluating DL prospects very closely.
Both Bowen and Carriker are carrying career-derailing injuries and large cap hits for 2014, so it’s a fair bet that at least one of them will be leaving Washington.
While a free agent like Baltimore’s Arthur Jones could be on Gruden’s radar, if both Carriker and Bowen depart, the draft will be the place to find vital depth. In his second full season—after an ACL tear robbed him of his rookie year—Jarvis Jenkins promptly missed the first four games after testing positive for a prohibited substance.
Upon return, he was decidedly unspectacular, although he established more of a presence as the year went on. The hope will be that he can reclaim the fire that saw Mike Shanahan take him in the second round in 2011.
As far as the combine goes, there are a few prospects who could make good contributions to Washington in 2014. One definitely worth watching is Brent Urban from Virginia. Altough he's not being talked about in the same breath as someone like Jadeavon Clowney, nor is he mentioned as a fast-riser like Pitt's Aaron Donald, Urban is a consistent performer who goes unnoticed because he isn't a sack artist.
What he does do, however, is play with good pad level, stop the run and occasionally penetrate into the opposition's backfields. He could contribute immediately as a 5-technique defensive end in Jim Haslett's 3-4, offering some variation to Washington's defensive look.
He has a lot of work to do as a pass-rusher, so the top of the fourth round would be the ideal place to add him.
All these things mean that Washington will be looking at the quarterback class as much as any other team—maybe not the same end of the class as the other teams but interest all the same.
While Cousins played well in 2012, he showed last year he still has a lot of learning to do to be a consistent NFL quarterback. He has a propensity for forcing the ball on occasion, for trying to do too much—traits that have been there since his days at Michigan State.
Nevertheless, he could easily have been 2-1 in his three starts in 2013 were it not for a botched two-point-conversion attempt against the Atlanta Falcons and a poor performance in the final minutes on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. In those first two games, he passed for 578 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Somewhat encouraging stats.
Unfortunately, he had an appalling game against the New York Giants in Week 17—although no one else showed up, either—and that's how his season is remembered: an 0-3 record and a dismal final game. It shouldn't be, though, as Cousins has shown he has what it takes to be a starter in this league.
Washington may not get more than a third-round pick for him, but that would still be more than he cost. Gruden should look to bring in a player whose skill set matches that of his starter.
Remember the clamor for Cousins to be traded and Pat White retained after a couple of solid preseason efforts? That may have been ridiculous, but it is rooted in common sense. Cousins and Griffin aren't similar enough to run the same offense, which is a problem if one is supposed to come in as backup for the other.
Someone like Tajh Boyd or Logan Thomas could come to the team with a ton of potential and find a system that is suited to the way they play. They're unlikely to grade out as starters in their rookie year, but have a lot of upside.
They have a lot of flaws, too. Thomas in particular has experienced a huge slide since his first year as a starter, when he was expected to be a first-round pick and the next Cam Newton. Nevertheless, don't be surprised to see Gruden pick up a Griffin/Newton-type QB in this year's draft.
DeAngelo Hall is a free agent this year, and Washington should aim to keep him around. Josh Wilson is also a free agent, but Washington should let him go.
That leaves David Amerson and the unconvincing E.J. Biggers to partner with Hall—although Chase Minnifield should be given an equal shot—so Gruden will be assessing the corners at this year's combine.
Washington got burned by big receivers in 2013, so, if he has any say, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett likely will lobby the Redskins front office to draft bigger defensive backs. A player like Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller would satisfy that requirement; he also offers a great combination of aggressiveness and intelligence, and he's a sure tackler.
Again, that final quality will come as blessed relief to fans in the D.C. area. Fuller was prone to injury throughout his college career, but comes from a long line of Fullers who played at Virginia Tech before going on to the NFL. He's physical at the line of scrimmage, at home in a variety of coverages and has enough speed to catch a receiver after losing a step.
As mentioned earlier, there is also a need for some safety help in Washington, but with Phillip Thomas returning from the Lisfranc injury that stole his rookie year and Baccari Rambo with a full offseason to work on his development, a veteran would seem like the best addition there.
More help from the linebackers and the defensive line—through the draft and ridding the position of some dead wood—would be useful, too.
Someone to Buy into the Rebuild
Everyone who plays college ball wants to play in the NFL. However, not everyone is prepared to work for it. Even fewer players are prepared to give everything when the team isn't doing so well.
The 2014 season isn't going to bring an automatic turnaround in Washington. The team isn't going to win the first nine games, crush the NFC East and secure home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Instead, there will be pain. Rookies and second-year players will have to shoulder a lot of the burden, while young guys like Griffin and Alfred Morris are suddenly veterans and wise old voices in the huddle.
Gruden needs to find players at the combine who are aware of this and prepared to play every down as if it's their last, regardless of field position, divisional standings or overall record.
Above all, playing in the NFL is a privilege and an honor.
Gruden should make it clear that he has no time for players coming into the league with a sense of entitlement. That mindset in the first year of a rebuilding project would be wasteful and unfair to the Redskin fanbase that, no matter what horror the previous season brought it, retain as much hope for the next one as ever.
Here's to 2014, then.