Washington Redskins: Ranking Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
The top training camp battles affecting the Washington Redskins feature intense competition on both sides of the trenches. Offensively, one of the team's third-round draft picks will try to usurp the right tackle position from an uninspiring veteran. Meanwhile, two massive players will compete for a starting defensive end job on Washington's 3-4 front.
The battle will be just as intriguing behind the defensive line. That's where as many as four candidates will push to replace revered former starter London Fletcher at inside linebacker.
Finally, the competitions are no less intriguing at the sub-package level. On offense, a clear candidate for the vital third-down running back role still needs to emerge. An exciting sixth-round draft pick has a good chance.
On the other side of the ball, another draftee has the opportunity to beat a veteran free agent and earn some snaps as the slot cornerback.
Here's a more detailed look at these five training camp battles, beginning with the D-line.
Defensive End: Chris Baker vs. Jarvis Jenkins
Let's assume that new signing Jason Hatcher has one starting defensive end spot locked up. That's a safe bet once he recovers from offseason knee surgery.
But the picture is a lot less clear on the other side. An intriguing potential scrap is brewing between behemoths Chris Baker and Jarvis Jenkins.
The former was one of the first players re-signed by general manager Bruce Allen and new head coach Jay Gruden. It was a smart move, given Baker's potential to be a consistently disruptive force up front.
He finished the 2013 season in strong fashion and has the attributes to dominate. Back in late February, I cited Baker's size and aggression as evidence of his breakout potential this season:
What Baker gives the Washington defense is size. But the 6'2", 333-pounder is finally learning how to use it.
Attacking from the outside has helped channel Baker's aggression, one of his better qualities, and has made him more effective. The 26-year-old plays with a tenacity 2011's second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins doesn't always show.
As that article described, combining an ample frame with a nasty edge isn't something Jenkins has always managed. Yet that hasn't stopped Gruden from endorsing Jenkins' ability to make an impact this season.
Gruden told Tarik El-Bashir of CSN Washington that he's expecting significant contributions from both Jenkins and Baker: "We expect big things out of Chris and Jarvis. Baker’s going to be a major part of our nickel pass rush also, as is Jarvis Jenkins at some point.”
El-Bashir noted how Jenkins is under pressure to deliver during the final year of a rookie contract penned in 2011. His career got off to the worst possible start when he tore his ACL that preseason. It was a cruel blow for a player who had initially wowed coaches.
What Jenkins needs is more impact. Even in a system that is still largely based on two-gap principles, Jenkins should find himself in the backfield more often.
Baker's ability to split gaps, rather than just control them, should give him the edge in this particular battle.
Likely Winner: Baker
Slot Cornerback: Bashaud Breeland vs. Tracy Porter
One of the better battles in training camp should be the duel between veteran Tracy Porter and rookie Bashaud Breeland. The two cover men will vie for the all-important slot cornerback role.
Competent coverage in the slot has become key to the functioning survival of any pro defense. The modern game features too many spread concepts and multiple-receiver sets.
Covering the slot demands a particular set of skills. Chief among them is physicality. Defensive coordinators love to see their secondary players beat up on inside receivers.
Both Breeland and Porter share solid size for the position. They each stand 5'11", while Breeland outweighs Porter 197 pounds to 188.
A fourth-round pick from Clemson, Breeland plays tall and challenges receivers as soon as they come off the line. By contrast, Porter is a little more opportunistic. He'll often hang back and spy a quarterback's eyes, anticipating his chance to pounce for a big play.
That's a feast-or-famine approach to coverage that can easily lead to huge gains for an offense. But Porter still possesses qualities that give him the edge in this particular skirmish.
The 27-year-old is effective on the blitz. He notched 1.5 sacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2013. Slot corners are often used as supplemental pass-rushers in certain pressure schemes. That's especially true of fire-zone schemes like the one favored by Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
Porter's opportunism and versatility put him ahead of Breeland at this key position.
Likely Winner: Porter
Right Tackle: Morgan Moses vs. Tyler Polumbus
The competition at right tackle could be one of the defining storylines of this offseason. Washington's offensive line needs revamping, particularly on the right side.
That's where third-round pick Morgan Moses can make a strong case to supplant Tyler Polumbus. The latter has missed only one start in the last two seasons. He has been a solid fit in the team's zone-based schemes.
But while he's never been quite as bad as many claim, Polumbus also fails to inspire any real confidence. He works best when blocking for the run. His mobility on stretch plays is a particularly useful asset.
Yet Polumbus is too often exposed as a weak link against premier pass-rushers. He is neither physically imposing nor especially dynamic athletically.
Those limitations surely prompted Gruden and Allen to select Moses in this year's draft. At 6'6" and 318 pounds, Moses doesn't boast a major size advantage over Polumbus.
However, he carries what he has on a broader, thicker frame. Moses is equally adept at shifting out into space and tends to obliterate defenders once he gets there.
What harms Moses' case is some early difficulty working on the right. Gruden noticed his rookie's rough learning curve during OTAs, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
He needs to know both tackle spots right now. But we had him at the right [last week]. He’s obviously more comfortable on the left side because that’s what he’s been doing the last few years in college. You could see him struggle a bit on the right side and then he went back to the left side, he appeared a little more natural.
But these early struggles don't condemn Moses' hopes of being a first-year starter. He played on both sides of the line for Virginia at the collegiate level. He will become more comfortable once he gets a settled position.
The real challenge for Moses is taking his raw attributes and refining them into polished, pro-style play. The player expressed those sentiments during an interview with 106.7 The Fan (h/t CSN Washington reporter Tarik El-Bashir): “I don’t think it’s just one thing that I need to work on. I need to work on my overall game. Polishing technique. That’s what the NFL is all about. Everybody is athletic."
That quote may make it sound as though Moses is far from starter-ready. But it's actually exactly why he can supplant Polumbus sooner rather than later.
Any time a player needs technical work, the implication is that his core physical attributes are already solid. Moses is already a more imposing specimen than Polumbus. That's something Gruden, who appreciates size and power along the offensive front, will appreciate.
Teach Moses the right technique, and he'll be a more complete lineman than Polumbus. Fortunately, that's exactly what training camp is for.
Likely Winner: Moses
Third-Down Running Back: Roy Helu Jr. vs. Chris Thompson vs. Lache Seastrunk
We know Alfred Morris is the workhorse of choice in the Washington backfield. There's no reason to change that after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Morris' achievements are all the more impressive when you consider he's never really had a change-of-pace complement. But things should be different this season now that up to three backs are competing for third-down work.
One of the stronger candidates is Roy Helu Jr. The 2011 fourth-round pick is a decent zone runner and a solid pass-catcher.
Helu offers good initial quickness, although he's a little boom-or-bust as a ball-carrier. Helu is not as explosive a big-play threat as he should be. He often takes too long to identify holes, a problem which leads to many pedestrian runs for meager gains.
If Gruden covets more flexibility and natural dynamism, then he should consider either Chris Thompson or Lache Seastrunk. The former couldn't protect the ball or stay healthy as a rookie in 2013.
However, Thompson is a natural speedster. The stamp-sized 5'7" dynamo is a shifty ace with the potential to be difficult for defenses to track and cover. Sadly, potential is all he has at the moment.
After appearing in only four games last season, Thompson must stay on the field to prove his worth to Gruden during training camp. Yet Thompson might still find himself overshadowed by Seastrunk.
The 2014 sixth-rounder is a naturally shifty, quick-cutting runner. His moves and acceleration perfectly suit Washington's successful zone schemes. But is he versatile enough for third-down work?
That's a pertinent question in light of the fact Seastrunk didn't catch a pass during his final season at Baylor, per CFBStats.com. His lack of work as a receiver may already be counting against Seastrunk in this race.
Shortly after he drafted the running back, Gruden defined his likely role. His description appeared to rule out a third-down position, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
If there’s a reach about him, it’s projecting him to be a third down guy who’s catching the ball. What we’re envisioning for him early on is not so much a third down guy but a guy that can spell [running back] Alfred [Morris] and hit the home run. He’s got the breakaway speed and hopefully in time he will be able develop into a pass blocker/receiver.
Gruden didn't exactly endorse Seastrunk as a third-down weapon. However, he did leave the door ajar for the player to learn the role.
There is a crowded landscape at this position. Expect Washington to carry all four of these running backs and take a few carries away from Morris.
Helu will initially be tasked with the dual-threat runner-receiver role. But Gruden will closely monitor both Thompson and Seastrunk as more explosive candidates.
Likely Winner: Helu
Inside Linebacker: Keenan Robinson vs. Akeem Jordan vs. Darryl Sharpton
At no other position is competition more intense than the starting inside linebacker spot next to Perry Riley Jr. Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton and Keenan Robinson are all battling for the job. Even Adam Hayward belongs in the mix.
What's intriguing about the battle are the different qualities offered by the first three names. Both Jordan and Sharpton have starting experience in 3-4 schemes with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, respectively.
They are willing hitters against the run and boast the added value of special teams excellence. That's a major factor given the team's efforts to get better in that area this season.
However, neither Jordan nor Sharpton can offer the athletic range Robinson possesses. The 2012 fourth-round pick is flexible enough to be a useful part of the coverage schemes. Robinson also boasts excellent sideline-to-sideline quickness that makes him strong in pursuit.
But it's the versatility to operate outside that could appeal most to play-caller Haslett. Robinson has good pass-rush skills and can blitz off the edge.
That's something Haslett likes to do with Riley out of nickel packages. Haslett will certainly be able to use Robinson to add more variety to the team's zone-blitz schemes.
The different roles he can occupy should give Robinson the inside track. Gruden was left suitably impressed during OTAs, per Brian McNally of The Washington Times:
He’s a lot further ahead than we anticipated, stamina-wise, mentally. He’s doing a great job. The linebacker position is hard to judge in shorts. But it is exciting to see him run around. He’s a very fluid athlete.
However, the caveat with Robinson is his health. He has missed 21 games in two seasons since being drafted. That creates a level of uncertainty that could open the door for one of the other three contenders.
Jordan is likely the strongest candidate from that group after having a fine season with the Chiefs. He notched 67 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles in 2013, according to stats from NFL.com.
It's safe to give the early edge to Jordan, at least until Robinson proves his health. Some work in sub-package defenses most likely awaits Robinson.
Likely Winner: Jordan
The outcome of these five battles will have major implications on the schemes for both the offense and defense. If Baker beats Jenkins, Haslett has another competent front-line pass-rusher to pair with Hatcher. That will let him use more one-gap, attacking principles along the line.
Meanwhile, Gruden would likely love to see Moses replace Polumbus. The new coach preferred size in the trenches when he ran the offense for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Having Moses on the right would allow him to incorporate some power techniques. That would ensure a more versatile scheme.
The one thing each battle proves is the good work done by Gruden and Allen to beef up the roster. Greater depth bodes well for Washington.
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