Washington Redskins: Recapping the Latest Buzz Heading into Training Camp
The latest pre-training camp buzz surrounding the Washington Redskins focuses on quarterback Robert Griffin III. There will naturally be a lot of attention on the young quarterback's progress following his second-season debacle.
But Griffin's performances this season can be aided by the development of young tight end Jordan Reed. He has earned plenty of plaudits this offseason for his potential to terrorize defenses in 2014.
Meanwhile, the defensive focus is on 2011 first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan. The try-hard outside linebacker has challenged himself to be better on a unit that must be more creative and opportunistic this season.
However, coordinator Jim Haslett's plans could be hampered somewhat by losing one member of an already thin safety rotation.
Here's the best of the latest buzz and what it means for a rebuilding team heading into training camp.
Who Can Cover Jordan Reed?
Concussion issues plagued his debut season, but Jordan Reed did enough in the nine games he was active to show he is a supremely talented playmaker. The 2013 third-round pick is reportedly ready to be even better in year two.
Reed caught 45 passes for 499 yards and three scores as a rookie. He is the epitome of the modern tight end—a player who can be moved anywhere along a formation to attack a defense.
Reed's wide receiver-like skills have drawn admiration from his quarterback this offseason. Griffin has praised Reed's route running and efficiency, per Ross Jones of Fox Sports:
I think he's one of the most talented tight ends in the league. He'll have an opportunity to show that. He's a guy that runs some of the best routes I've ever seen. Our offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, has said that you can't cover the guy. If (Reed) knows what he's doing, where he's going and he knows how he's trying to get there, you can't cover him. That's a good asset to have. I know last year we targeted him 11 times and he caught 11 balls in one game. That's what you want. You want to throw it to a guy that's going to catch it every time. You want to throw it to a guy who is going to secure that catch.
Griffin hasn't been alone in anticipating big things from Reed in year two. Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler has noted that fans should expect the ex-Florida star to attack vertically more often during his second season:
It’s a good bet that we’ll see Reed running 20 yards past the line of scrimmage more often in 2013. He certainly has the speed and athletic ability to be effective rolling down the seam. It also looks like going deep to the tight end is something that coach Jay Gruden likes to do.
The quotes from Griffin and Tandler speak to an important balance Washington has to strike with Reed. Griffin needs a capable tight end to help him succeed.
The young quarterback is often guilty of prioritizing the deep ball over everything else. His first thought is to attack downfield and Griffin can become locked on that first read.
Having an athletic, "move" target like Reed, who can consistently win underneath, will give Griffin a regular outlet. That's something that should make him a more efficient passer.
However, offensive coordinator Sean McVay, Reed's position coach last season, cannot limit Reed to simply being a safety valve. That would be a waste of the player's tremendous range and flexibility.
The previous coaching staff showed a willingness to move Reed around and flex him into different alignments. That's exactly what new head coach Jay Gruden and his staff must do.
Training camp should be a good indicator of their exact plans for this team's most intriguing offensive weapon.
Ryan Kerrigan Wants to Be Dominant
Since Washington selected him as a top-20 pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Ryan Kerrigan has been a pretty solid citizen. He hasn't missed a game in three seasons and has managed to tally 24.5 sacks in that time.
However, the former Purdue defensive end has yet to register double-digit quarterback takedowns in a season. The ability to dominate is clearly there, but now Kerrigan has to turn potential into reality.
I’m tired of being consistent. I want to be consistently really, really good. I don’t want to be just consistently average anymore. I want to be consistently good.
Kerrigan's next step toward progress should be targeting sustained production. He has tended to amass good numbers in clutches and streaks rather than remaining a force over the course of a season.
Kerrigan's last campaign is a prime example of this disparity. He logged five sacks in his first four games and 6.5 in his first seven, then finished with just two sacks in his last nine.
Kerrigan's case hasn't always been helped by having to shoulder the pass-rush burden at times while injuries and poor form pervaded his supporting cast. However, that shouldn't be a problem this season, despite NFL.com writer Marc Sessler believing there is a lack of "depth and difference-makers" to support Kerrigan.
However, this Washington defense is better stocked than many believe, especially along the front seven. Kerrigan will have the support of 10-sack outside 'backer Brian Orakpo. The team also used its first draft pick this year to add rush end Trent Murphy to the mix.
Up front, pass-rushing defensive tackle Jason Hatcher will be a major complement to the linebackers once he returns from offseason knee surgery. Meanwhile, Gruden is anticipating increased production from talented D-linemen Chris Baker and Jarvis Jenkins, per Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com.
There is certainly enough talent around Kerrigan to push him to produce more. The hallmark of dominant players is delivering big numbers and causing consistent disruption on a weekly basis.
Kerrigan's performances during training camp should provide a good indication of whether or not he is ready to take that next step.
Jim Haslett Expecting Turnovers and More from New-Look Defense
After four tough seasons largely failing to produce a stout 3-4 defense in Washington, coordinator Jim Haslett feels he finally has the pieces to make his schemes work.
Haslett's unit has a new look thanks to an influx of fresh talent in key areas, notably up front. The signing of former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler Hatcher was a major boost for the D-line. Meanwhile, drafting Murphy has given Haslett a versatile sub-package weapon.
Haslett believes he can do more with his new personnel, via Jason Reid of The Washington Post:
I like our guys. I really do. We've got a good group. We’ve got some versatility to do different things.
We’re going to try to take advantage of some of the guys we have.
Making creative use of more versatile personnel is indeed the key to a defensive turnaround this season. That will require tweaking current schemes to suit the newbies.
Hatcher is a prime example of how different things could look this season. He is a deadly, one-gap rusher, particularly when attacking the B-gap between the offensive guard and tackle.
To take full advantage of that, Haslett must adjust his base three-man fronts to include more single-gap alignments and principles. He can be even more expansive with his rush linebackers.
That means letting Orakpo and Kerrigan blitz through the middle on occasion. It also means lining them up together on the same side in certain looks, as well as deploying packages with Orakpo, Kerrigan and Murphy on the field at the same time.
Gruden noted that Murphy was certainly put through his paces at various positions during OTAs, per Rich Tandler again, this time for CSNWashington.com:
Trent's done a great job. He's played both sides, he's played in nickel situations, he's played with the three technique, he's stood up and moved around. So Trent's done an outstanding job and I see him all the time in the film room watching practice. He's very aware of what his role is and what it's going to be and he wants to study it and be the best at it.
These are schematic ploys that must carry over into the new season. That didn't happen during the last campaign, despite Washington showing a lot of different looks during preseason.
Reid believes the influence former head coach Mike Shanahan exerted over the defense had a lot to do with that:
For four seasons — three of which ended with 10 or more losses — defensive coordinator Jim Haslett followed orders while former head coach Mike Shanahan made his job more difficult by tinkering with the defense, people within the organization say. And although Haslett often was frustrated that Shanahan, who had roster control, invested more heavily on offense during free agency, he kept his concerns in house.
That's easy to believe of the ultra-controlling Shanahan. But greater freedom means increased pressure on Haslett to finally deliver.
Despite any interference from Shanahan, the coordinator was rarely cautious on defense. Many fans will no doubt remember the high price the team sometimes paid for Haslett's risky Cover 0 blitz concepts.
The new regime must hope that better athletes along the front will make Haslett's bold calls succeed. It's a reasonable gamble to take.
A more creative and aggressive scheme can translate into more turnovers. Haslett has made that a season target, according to CSNWashington.com.
Training camp will provide a great opportunity to see just how expansive and daring Haslett is prepared to get with his schemes and personnel this season.
Tanard Jackson's Suspension Puts the Focus Back on Suspect Secondary
One player Haslett's revamped defense will again be without is Tanard Jackson. The troubled safety has incurred another indefinite suspension from the NFL due to substance abuse violations.
The news was reported by Mike Jones of The Washington Post, who believes Jackson may have received some work at what looks like a shaky position this season. Despite a paucity of talent at safety, Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were content to make only slight adjustments to the rotation during the offseason.
Adding 34-year-old Ryan Clark and counting on a return to health of 2013 fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas has been the extent of the work at arguably the weakest area on the roster.
While Jackson's suspension won't have surprised many, given his history with substance-abuse issues, it does put the threadbare secondary under even more intense scrutiny.
There is now greater pressure on Clark to prove he still has some quality performances left. Meanwhile, too much could be expected of Thomas, who has yet to play a down in the pros after Lisfranc surgery last preseason.
Haslett really needs veterans like Clark and Brandon Meriweather, never the most reliable player, to steady the ship at this position.
Robert Griffin III Looking as Good as in His Rookie Year
After a season spent at loggerheads with the Shanahan regime and recovering from major knee surgery, much is expected of Robert Griffin III in 2014. While last season's narrative mostly crafted a view of a young prima donna, as culpable for the team's struggles as his autocratic former coaches, there is more good will for Griffin this year.
It's an interesting comparison, particularly given its implications for the schemes implemented by the Gruden regime. One of the more telling quotes Steinberg cites from McVay's ESPN interview concerns Griffin's ability as a runner:
And when you’re a quarterback that has the ability to kind of buy time with your legs, keep your eyes downfield and then if guys are playing with their back to the quarterback, now he’s got a chance to take off and run it and create yards that way. So I think that’s going to be a big part of what he does. And he’s continuing to get more and more comfortable feeling some of those soft spots in the pockets, and being able to remain a passer while also understanding that hey, I do have this elite trait with my legs and athleticism, that if things do break down I can create that way also.
Making plays with his feet, rather than his arm, was a major part of what made Griffin lethal as a rookie. His dual-threat, big-play capability, combined with the strong running of Alfred Morris, kept defenses guessing.
But that combination was made potent by the read-option schemes utilized by Mike and Kyle Shanahan. It's strange to hear McVay heartily endorse Griffin's rushing skills, considering Gruden has declared he will junk the read-option, per Sports Illustrated columnist Don Banks.
As stated many times before, the solution to the debate about how often Griffin should use his mobility, is all about balance. McVay hints at that balance when he talks about the team's young signal-caller "feeling some of those soft spots in the pockets."
Ultimately, Washington's NFL franchise will only succeed long-term if Griffin becomes a more rounded, pro-style passer. But that can't mean totally eradicating that extra element he challenges defenses with.
Training camp will provide a good indicator of how Gruden, McVay and Griffin are handling this critical balancing act.
Keep a close watch during training camp on the five factors discussed here. The performances of Reed and Griffin will be vital to an offense that should be among the league's best this season.
On the other side of the ball, creativity and dominance up front are the only things that will save an underwhelming secondary.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com.