How Much Has Each Washington Redskins Positional Unit Improved This Offseason?
We know about the wide receivers. Frankly, if Robert Griffin III can't find someone to throw the ball to this year, then there will be serious questions about the young quarterback. But what about the rest of his Washington teammates?
With a new—first-time—head coach, it's always going to be difficult to make a judgment about how the players will perform. However, that's not what is happening here.
This article will take a look at each positional unit and assess the projected starters and the depth behind them, concentrating solely on how the unit appears compared to the 2013 team.
No grades are being handed out here; it's just an assessment of where things currently stand. With no football being played right now, exercises like this keep the spirits up.
Let's get right to it.
Robert Griffin III is healthy. That's enough, surely?
Yes, on paper that's enough. While we won't know how he has taken to Gruden's offense until Week 1, all signs are pointing to a fully healthy RG3 to start the season.
His former college coach Art Briles was the latest to gush about how Griffin looks this year, telling Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post, "I actually watched him work out yesterday and visited with him a little bit, and I think it’s as fresh and uplifting as I’ve seen him in a long time quite honestly."
Briles went on to state that Griffin rushed himself back into action last year, which may seem obvious now, but not many people were saying that last year. "All in for Week 1" might seem embarrassing now, but it was a call to arms before the 2013 season brought reality back into people's homes.
Like it or not, this team lives or dies by Griffin's development as a passer. The threat of his legs will never go away, and Gruden would be foolish to try and coach that out of him, but RG3's decision-making has to improve.
Whether that's going through his progressions, knowing when to throw the ball away or simply getting out of bounds before a 300-pound man hits him at full speed, Griffin has to do better.
Right now, however, there's no denying that the quarterback position looks a lot better. If Gruden decides to carry three quarterbacks and keeps Colt McCoy as the third-stringer behind backup Kirk Cousins, there's really good depth there, too.
Gruden went shopping for wide receivers this offseason and came away with some good ones. The likes of Aldrick Robinson and Leonard Hankerson had not developed as much as the coaches would have hoped—regardless of injuries—and it was clear that reinforcements were needed.
Even before the arrival of DeSean Jackson, signing Andre Roberts boosted the threat of the Redskins offense. As John Keim noted for ESPN.com upon Roberts' arrival, the former Cardinal has a wide catch radius and displayed good hands last season.
Watching the receivers—particularly veteran Santana Moss—drop so many passes in 2013 was dispiriting, although Griffin's dip in accuracy obviously affected that.
Nevertheless, there was a reason that rookie tight end Jordan Reed got so many targets: He caught just about everything thrown his way. If Roberts operates out of the slot as everyone predicts, Griffin will have at least four players with good hands around him. Trusting your teammates to make the play is important to any quarterback and will mean no hesitation when releasing the ball.
Picking up a suddenly available Jackson elevated the receiving corps further. Dumped by the Eagles after a career year, he should be fired up and ready to make a statement—particularly in the two games against his former teammates.
Rookie Ryan Grant has been drawing praise in camp for his precise route running, so it's likely that he sees the field at some point this year. Throw in undrafted free agent Cody Hoffman and a returning Moss, and Washington has a very dangerous group. That's before even mentioning Pierre Garcon, who racked up more than 1,000 yards last year and continued to look like a No. 1 pass-catcher despite the team's results.
It's going to be an exciting year for the wide receivers.
With so much talent at wide receiver, who's going to cover Jordan Reed?
That's the question that Gruden hopes his opposite number will be asking every week. The former Gator excelled his rookie year before concussion problems prematurely ended his season.
Back to full health, Reed is a candidate for a breakout year. Even Gil Brandt at NFL.com thinks so. The task of covering Jackson, Garcon and Roberts will inevitably leave someone open, and Reed has the potential to create mismatches and come away with big yardage.
Mark Bullock broke down some of Gruden's Cincinnati formations for The Washington Post and outlined how Reed could be deployed in the same manner. Lining up the tight end in a variety of positions to force the defense to betray its tactics will be of immense benefit to Griffin.
If Reed can stay healthy, it's not outlandish to suggest that he could go to the Pro Bowl.
Outside of Reed, Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen provide depth. Paul is mainly a special teams player, while Paulsen's strengths lie as a blocker. He made some plays in 2012, but 2013 also saw him succumb to the drops and work his way out of favor.
Not much is expected from seventh-round rookie Ted Bolser, who has struggled with the pace of the pro game in camp and been inconsistent with his hands. He showed improvement as the practices continued but remains a long shot to make the roster.
On paper this is a similar group of tight ends to 2013, but if Reed makes the jump predicted of him, the improvement will be obvious to all.
Benching a healthy quarterback out of fear for his safety isn't normal in the NFL, but that's what happened to Griffin last year. Some—although not all—of the blame can be distributed across every offensive lineman not named Trent Williams.
Williams is the cornerstone of the line and one of the best left tackles in the league. In fact, his play in 2013 prompted Bleacher Report's Matt Miller to declare him "the best and most valuable left tackle in the game" as Miller ranked him atop his offseason left tackle list.
Washington was exposed elsewhere, however. Will Montgomery gave up too much pressure under center, prompting his release, while Tyler Polumbus, Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester suddenly looked overwhelmed and undersized for the slightly more traditional offense that Mike and Kyle Shanahan tried to install.
Help was needed, and Gruden immediately set about adding some size to his line. In came Shawn Lauvao from Cleveland to bolster the interior. Lauvao isn't much of a run-stopper, but his services in pass protection will benefit the team. Right now, he's an upgrade.
Morgan Moses was added in the third round of the 2014 draft and was expected to immediately assume the right tackle position. However, the transition to the NFL hasn't been easy for him.
As reported by ESPN.com's John Keim, Moses' problem is that his length got him out of trouble in college, and as a result, his technique was never pro-ready. He bends at the waist rather than staying low, which affects his balance. In the NFL, this flaw means he'll get overpowered and moved aside.
Polumbus is likely to be the starter this year, which may cause some fans to shudder. However, if Moses can work on his technique this year, be dedicated and continue to improve, he could overtake the incumbent halfway through the season.
There are still weaknesses here, but enough has been done to help out Griffin and keep him off his back a little more in 2014.
Since being taken in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Alfred Morris has quietly gone about his business with humility and respect—two seasons, 2,888 yards, 20 touchdowns, 4.7 yards per carry. In 2012, detractors sniped that he would be nothing without the threat of Griffin—that he was purely a system back.
In 2013, Griffin's legs were almost a nonfactor, and the Shanahans frequently abandoned the run as they attempted to chase down a large deficit.
The result? How about 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns? Even without a running quarterback and 59 fewer attempts across the season, Morris still averaged 79.7 yards per game and went to the Pro Bowl.
Morris isn't a concern in the new system. His vision and patience make his game, which should realistically thrive in any system. Gruden's penchant for more of a power-based game may even help Morris, since he'll have a lineman acting as his lead blocker.
It's behind him that things are a little murkier. Roy Helu isn't a sure thing, while Evan Royster has practically dropped off the face of the Earth. Chris Thompson has a history of not staying healthy and looked uncomfortable last year, which leaves unproven rookie Lache Seastrunk.
Fullback Darrel Young should work his way into the picture a little more, offering a surprise receiving threat out of the backfield as well as a battering ram into the end zone.
While Morris will distract from the rest of the unit's frailties, there remains little to no depth behind him. Morris has shown himself to be incredibly durable so far, and the running game should again be a strength, but it's difficult to see how it's improved.
Adding Jason Hatcher in free agency gave the defensive line a pass-rushing boost for 2014. The line had failed to get much pressure on the quarterback in 2013, which in turn failed to protect a fragile secondary.
Since tearing his ACL his rookie year, Jarvis Jenkins has not regained the explosion that saw him get taken in the second round. This has negated him as a sack threat.
Stephen Bowen is coming off microfracture surgery and is now 30 years old. It's vital that he recovers and is able to perform at a high level. Chris Baker is a promising player, but he's not the ideal Week 1 starter. Barry Cofield saw a drop-off in performance last year.
Just looking at the names, the presence of Hatcher inevitably means that the line is better. Having someone as dynamic as the former Cowboy will force the opposition to account for him, and the opposing quarterback will be forced to make throws quicker than he would like.
That alone will be of enormous benefit. However, the doubts around Bowen's recovery and Cofield rebounding mean that a position of weakness last year still has a couple of question marks.
Improvement? Undoubtedly. Dominance? Don't count on it, Bowen.
Brian Orakpo may not have gotten the long-term deal he was searching for, but he returns on a "prove it" year as the franchise player. With him and Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins have outside linebackers who are capable of game-changing plays.
Orakpo may have overpursued a few times last year and been exposed along the way, but he still notched up double-digit sacks in 15 games and went to the Pro Bowl. Kerrigan has expressed a desire for more consistency already, as reported by Stephen Czarda at the official team site.
For a player who has been remarkably consistent, it's probably fair to assume that he was talking about the defensive unit as a whole.
The addition of second-round pick Trent Murphy should help to create an unpredictable package for Jim Haslett to work with, but the best addition to the squad seems to be new outside linebackers coach Brian Baker.
According to John Keim at ESPN.com, Baker has been "constantly teaching and reminding players when what they've done is right or wrong." He has taken time out to work with players individually, emphasizing technique and footwork while still recognizing that there isn't one solution that will improve everyone:
He worked with Brandon Jenkins on his footwork off the snap when positioned at right outside linebacker. It's a little different than on the right side and he wanted to make sure he stayed on the right path from the get-go. But he also told Jenkins, "You can't get it to look like everyone else. You've just got to get it right. Make it work for you." He also worked with Jenkins on accelerating at the top of the rush—it's where you win.
On the inside, much now depends on Keenan Robinson. London Fletcher has retired, and although he was noticeably slowed last year, his innate knowledge of the game saved him from embarrassment. Robinson and Perry Riley will face a tough task as they seek to emulate Fletcher's heady game.
Bringing in Akeem Jordan and Darryl Sharpton will also give the team a veteran boost. Jordan is a former special teams captain, so he will also help shore up that area.
It's a solid step in the right direction.
It's not through laziness that the safety and cornerback positions are being lumped together. Both have been an area of vulnerability for Washington, probably since Sean Taylor's death. While Gruden hasn't found a solution, there is suddenly a little optimism among the group.
Ryan Clark—returning for his second stint and wearing Taylor's No. 21 in practice as a tribute to his friend—has already shown why veteran leadership is crucial to development. Practices have been filled with Clark instructing young corners David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland in what to look for pre-snap or how to be alert for a certain play.
It's a stretch to say that this alone makes his one-year deal worthwhile, but it's a factor that contributed to his arrival.
Clark and Brandon Meriweather will start at safety, which leaves Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo as the backups. Thomas is recovering from a Lisfranc injury but was penciled in as a starter before his rookie season was over. Rambo, meanwhile, has to show his tackling has improved from last year.
Both players have talent, but a lot depends on Clark and Meriweather staying healthy. In Meriweather's case, he also has to stop leading with his head and getting suspended.
Amerson and DeAngelo Hall will be the starting corners, with newcomer Tracy Porter covering the slot. That leaves Breeland, Richard Crawford, Chase Minnifield and E.J. Biggers fighting it out for roles elsewhere.
Biggers has the ability to play safety, although he didn't do it particularly well last year. That should keep him around. He's only on a one-year deal, however, so his presence won't solve anything past this season.
It's difficult to know how many corners Gruden will keep, but it would be a shame to lose either Crawford or Minnifield. Both have potential but have struggled with injury. Crawford is coming off an ACL, MCL and LCL tear, while Minnifield is healthy for the first time since before he had knee surgery in college.
As with the linebackers, there are probably going to be some frustrating times ahead. However, any sort of step in the right direction would be welcomed.
Special teams was an embarrassment in 2013. No other description will suffice. Poor tackling surrendered huge gains, and the players were uncommitted and gave up field position at every turn.
The first step Gruden took to address this was bringing in former Jets special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica. Kotwica's military background has returned a sense of pride to the unit, as Niles Paul recalled to Mike Jones at The Washington Post:
First day of special teams, he addressed us and said, 'Who wants to join my special forces?' And everybody was like, 'Dang, I wanna join the special forces.' He’s getting everybody to buy into what he’s selling. We’re believing in him. That’s the big thing when you get a new coach, is guys believing in him... Guys are communicating, guys are wanting to make tackles. That’s what special teams is all about.
In addition to this new attitude, Kotwica has brought in the other position coaches to the special teams setup to help maximize the level of coaching that the players receive. When there is competition—as there is among the kickers and punters—that can only help drive improvement.
Special teams has to improve in 2014. Another disaster will not be tolerated. Special teams is too important to ignore, and Gruden seems to get that.