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Washington Redskins Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2014

Washington Redskins Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The top storylines of Washington Redskins training camp inevitably focus on the rapport between quarterback Robert Griffin III and new head coach Jay Gruden. Specifically, eyes will be fixed on how well Griffin is developing in Gruden's schemes.

    Like it or not, how this pair coexists will be the defining factor between a successful season and another year spent propping up the NFC East.

    The offshoots of that dynamic concern the nature of Gruden's offense and the implications for a crowded rotation of wide receivers. How Griffin spreads the ball around this season will be critical, not only to his development as a pro passer, but to the offense as a whole.

    Stepping away from the offense, the special teams is sure to face scrutiny. The unit, a diabolical mess in 2013, has a new coordinator and several new personnel. The competition already brewing at key places is sure to provide intrigue.

    Here's a closer look at the main storylines to watch during camp.

The Gruden Offense vs. the Shanahan System

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Mike Shanahan era was a dismal time. The overbearing nature of a controlling top man eventually strangled the life out of this team.

    However, for everything he got wrong, there was rarely ever anything not to like about Shanahan's offense. The West Coast scheme, with its heavy doses of play-action passing and zone-based running, could be a joy to watch.

    With a good offense already in place but question marks about the defense, it was surprising to see the Redskins replace Shanahan with another offensive-minded head coach.

    How Gruden's system compares to Shanahan's will make for fascinating viewing during camp. Early feedback from the players indicates the comparison is a strong one.

    Griffin indicated that while the terminology may be new, the basic play designs remain the same, per Mark Maske of The Washington Post:

    Our running game has stayed pretty true to what it is and our passing game, we’ve had to learn some new things. Even if it might be the same concept, like I said, it might be called differently. I think everybody is doing a great job being on top of that, being in the right place.

    The reference to the ground schemes staying the same is particularly welcome. The one thing Shanahan could really do was build a dominant rushing attack. That's just what he crafted in Washington with 2012 sixth-round pick Alfred Morris as the fulcrum.

    There's simply no reason to alter the principles that have helped Morris post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. There is also not much cause to radically shift the passing attack away from the crossing patterns and Hi-Lo concepts that are a staple of any West Coast scheme.

    Of course, it helps that Gruden shares a background in the West Coast offense with Shanahan. Maintaining the existing formula could also be part of ensuring a smoother transition between a new coach and his roster.

    Despite a clutch of new faces, the core of this offense was established under Shanahan. It makes sense to indulge this core with the familiar.

    The trick for Gruden will be knowing exactly when and how to incorporate the wrinkles specific to his own scheme, the favorite concepts every play-caller has.

    Training camp should provide an early indication of what those specifically Gruden elements will look like and how they'll work.

Spreading the Ball Around Among the Wide Receivers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The distribution of wealth became something of a hot topic this week, in reference to the Washington passing game. That's understandable when considering the Redskins added a receiver who caught 82 passes in 2013 alongside one who tallied 113.

    But it's not only DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon who need to be accommodated in this season's offense. Washington also recruited Andre Roberts, a talented third receiver who made 43 grabs for the Arizona Cardinals last season.

    That's an embarrassment of riches before even mentioning Aldrick Robinson, Santana Moss and rookie Ryan Grant. For now though, the man responsible with divvying up the catches doesn't see a problem.

    Griffin stated his pass-catching playmakers must maximize their reduced chances this season during an interview with 106.7 The Fan (h/t CSN Washington reporter Tarik El-Bashir):

    These guys know that there are some weapons around them on the field, so they don’t have all that pressure on them. But they also know when they get the ball, they are going to have to do something with it because there’s no guarantee that the ball is going to come to them 10, 15 times a game. They might only get three or four of five shots a game, and they have to make the most of it.

    Training camp will be a good preview of how Washington's sharing approach is working at this position. Jackson is a a player who always wants the ball and soon lets his coaches and teammates know it.

    There is also tight end Jordan Reed to consider. The budding star made 45 catches in limited action as a rookie. Reed is being touted for a big season by many, including Griffin.

    The quarterback has stated that Reed is ready to dominate this term, per Fox Sports reporter Ross Jones:

    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.

    Fitting in this many ball-hungry targets won't be easy, despite what Griffin claims. Of course, training camp can also play its part in slimming the field.

    One player reportedly at risk is veteran Moss, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post. The reporter also expressed doubts over Leonard Hankerson's ability to be ready in time for the new season: 

    Sources say it's still not yet known whether Hatcher and Hankerson will have to open camp on PUP list. Physicals Wed.

    — Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) July 21, 2014

    But even a few extra cuts or omissions won't fully solve the problem of establishing a true pecking order. Perhaps clearly defined roles can do it.

    Obvious ones would include utilizing Jackson's vertical speed primarily as a deep threat. That would play to his greatest asset.

    Garcon would then be free to continue acting as a roving playmaker, mostly attacking the outside and across the middle. Roberts would be the matchup receiver, able to flip-flop between the slot and the outside.

    Having a trio of star wideouts partnering Reed can work wonders for this offense. But the way the ball will be spread around has to be made clear during camp.

The Griffin-Gruden Dynamic

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    Despite the influx of new talent, nothing will work on offense unless the relationship between Gruden and Griffin is right. That dynamic is already rightly being touted as the major storyline of camp.

    NFL.com reporter Judy Battista cites it as the "most important player-coach relationship" in football:

    The dysfunction that developed between Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III was fascinating to watch, but clearly not productive for either party -- or the Washington Redskins as a whole. Shanahan lost his job, Griffin lost a bit of his lustrous reputation and the team lost its NFC East supremacy. Questions that emerged about Griffin's ability to develop as a more traditional pocket passer and become a team leader -- thanks to an awful lot of damaging leaks -- persist to this day. That's why the relationship between Griffin and rookie head coach Jay Gruden is so critical. The future of Griffin, not just as a player but as the most important figure in the franchise this side of the owner's box, is at stake.

    The stakes are indeed that high, with implications that stretch far beyond this season. The Redskins invested their future, both the short and the long-term version of it, on Griffin when they traded for him in 2012.

    Dealing away two first-round picks and a second-rounder robbed the organization of the opportunity to build a complete roster designed for sustained winning. Instead, Snyder, Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen mortgaged the lot on the belief that a star quarterback would help them win now.

    Of course, it hasn't entirely played out as any member of that decision-making process intended. The NFC East title and playoff berth Griffin inspired as a rookie were all but erased by last season's 3-13 nightmare.

    Yet the fact that Shanahan was shoved aside and replaced by a quarterback-friendly coach like Gruden was a far from subtle reminder of how committed this franchise remains to Griffin.

    Gruden's experience working with a young quarterback, Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals, likely went in his favor. That's something Battista noted. However, the results weren't always positive.

    Yes, the Gruden-Dalton partnership took in three straight trips to the playoffs. But many in Cincy would give at least equal credit to Mike Zimmer's defense for that success.

    In fact, Dalton's ultimate lack of development could be cited as the main reason for the Bengals losing at the first stage in all three visits to the postseason.

    That's not something any fan in Washington wants to see. Griffin has to be the man to win a Super Bowl with this franchise. Joe Theismann did it, as did Doug Williams. Even Mark Rypien managed it.

    The point is that's how Griffin will be judged in Washington. Did he deliver a Super Bowl? The reality is every head coach he has will be evaluated based on whether or not they helped him achieve that goal.

    Gruden and the Redskins have increased the pressure on the relationship by giving Griffin a host of new weapons. There can be no more excuses for a quarterback who has Reed, Roberts, Garcon and Jackson to throw to, and who also gets to hand off to Alfred Morris.

    The danger is Washington has been down this route before. Shanahan gave Griffin everything he wanted during the quarterback's debut pro season. That included the notoriously inflexible coach junking a lot of his own system to incorporate the read-option, spread-style concepts that made Griffin a star at Baylor.

    Ultimately, when it came time to balance things out, enforced or otherwise, tensions between quarterback and coach boiled over.

    How Gruden communicates with Griffin, including how he places trust in him while still maintaining authority over a player with a lot of influence, will be heavily scrutinized during camp.

The New-Look Special Teams

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    If there's one reason to feel optimistic about the new regime in Washington, it's provided by the effort made to fix the special teams. Nobody can accuse Gruden and Allen of half-measures in this area during the offseason.

    Three free agents and the same number of draftees were added with special teams expertise as a primary focus. Utilizing them is now the job of new coordinator Ben Kotwica, lured from the New York Jets, a franchise with a good track record for solid special teams play in recent years.

    The competition for places in Kotwica's new-look unit is sure to provide plenty of interest during camp. CSN Washington reporter Tarik El-Bashir has detailed the battles brewing at both spots in the kicking game.

    But it could be more intriguing watching how the coverage units perform. Linebackers Adam Hayward, Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan have been added to the mix. All three are special teams standouts.

    Meanwhile, fourth-round pick Bashaud Breeland can help, as can seventh-round tight end Ted Bolser. That's a lot of new faces for a group that was dreadful in 2013.

    Efficiency and big plays from football's third phase can make a big difference between winning and losing. That's especially true for rebuilding teams.

    Jordan has arrived after one season with the Kansas City Chiefs. He joined a roster that was 2-14 the season before but rebounded to go 11-5 and make the playoffs in the AFC in 2013.

    Opportunism, sound coverage and spectacular returns on special teams were a major reason behind that turnaround. Washington won't win this season if the special teams is as bad as it was during Shanahan's dismal final year.

Defensive Creativity

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been handed new weapons to make his blitz-happy, fire zone 3-4 schemes work. Now it's up to Haslett to prove he is a creative enough play-caller to let his personnel thrive.

    Haslett has promised a more varied scheme following the arrivals of rookie rush linebacker Trent Murphy and veteran D-tackle Jason Hatcher, per Jason Reid of The Washington Post.

    Reid has suggested Haslett didn't always have that freedom under Shanahan (surprise, surprise): "...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."

    Now that Shanahan is no longer around, Haslett has no more excuses not to run the kind of system he wants. That should mean plenty of moving pieces and pressure.

    A key to it will be getting outside pass-rushers like Murphy, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan heavily involved. That's something else Haslett has promised to do, per ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim:

    We’ll try to turn them loose more this year, do more with them game-wise. Don’t worry so much if they lose contain, because they’ll lose frickin contain half the time. Let’s roll and make sure the tackles cover for them. Different things like that.

    This is all good, tough talk from Haslett. However, it has to play out on the field once the real action begins. Washington's defense was very creative last preseason when Haslett moved pass-rushers like Orakpo, Kerrigan and Darryl Tapp around.

    But all of those wrinkles disappeared once the regular season had started. Perhaps that was the Shanahan meddling Reid hinted at. Accepting Shanahan would interfere with the running of the defense is not exactly a tough sell.

    What is a tougher sell is believing that Haslett sans Shanahan can finally deliver a stout defense in Washington. After all, he hasn't done it in four seasons.

    Creativity geared toward an aggressive scheme is the key to finally achieving success with the 3-4 experiment started in 2010. Training camp will be a great indicator for how aggressive Haslett is allowed to be this season.

    It doesn't help that he won't have Hatcher available. The man tasked with providing inside pressure will be recovering from knee surgery, taking a valuable and versatile playmaker away from Haslett.

    But as previously stated, there can be no more excuses. Haslett still has plenty of weapons to attack quarterbacks with.

    Now he must prove he can use them. Keep a close eye on the defense during training camp. Any hints about how Haslett is going to expand his schemes will make for fascinating viewing.

    All five of these storylines will have a major impact on how this team fares in the first year after Shanahan. If Gruden gets Griffin right, this offense is ready to light up scoreboards. Of course, that's assuming Griffin knows how to keep his receivers happy.

    Defensively, this has to be Haslett's last chance to prove that when given a free hand he can craft a scheme that will cause opponents a myriad of problems.

     

    All statistics via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.

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