Three Positions Will Define Redskins in 2009
Late July through early August is typically the time when the cookouts start revving up and the back to school shopping gets started for the average citizen. For the average NFL player, however, the time period is all about the game: it’s either your job to win or your job to lose.
When training camp opens July 30 at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Virginia, the Washington Redskins could be considered fortunate to not be in dire need of a host of new starters. While the open positions are few, the importance of the spots up for grabs have the potential to define the season for last year’s last place finishers in the NFC East.
With spots open at right tackle, wide receiver and strong side linebacker, the Redskins already have some frontrunners listed at the top of the depth charts for those respective positions. But if a fresh face or two can step up to claim a starting title, Washington wouldn’t mind at all.
Stephon Heyer became the obvious choice for Jon Jansen’s replacement at right tackle when the long-time veteran was released in May. Although Heyer is expected to be the starter, the Redskins aren’t taking anything for granted, bringing in Mike Williams and Jeremy Bridges to push him. All three options have severe questions attached to them, meaning that the Redskins are taking a big gamble on one of their most important positions in a run-oriented offense.
Heyer is an undrafted experiment who desperately needs to improve his run blocking if the team expects Clinton Portis to have a semblance of a successful season. Starting 12 games over the last two seasons puts him as the favorite, but that’s more by default than strong and encouraging play.
Williams hasn’t been in the league in three seasons and is only a few months removed from the 450 weight mark he was hovering around back in February. Down to a respectable (I guess) 381 pounds, the former No. 4 overall draft pick will have a long ways to go to even resemble the man he was before he stepped away from the league, and even that former gentleman wasn’t all too impressive in his disappointing stint with the Buffalo Bills.
Ironically, Jeremy Bridges is probably the safest choice out of all three. The former Carolina Panther is a serviceable big body who can alternate between guard and tackle, with 39 starts over the last six seasons. Of course, there has to be a question mark surrounding Bridges and his two misdemeanor assault charges, with one currently pending.
Bridges may have to fall out of the running for right tackle in order to compensate as interior depth, thanks to starting guard Randy Thomas’ offseason arthroscopic knee surgery.
Although Thomas is expected to be ready to start the season, any mishap in his rehab would mean two new starters on the strong side of the Redskins' offensive line. Should the replacements falter, the consequences could be too much for Washington to overcome on short notice.
Right tackle aside, the Redskins aren’t that far away from having a high-profile offense. With a top flight tight end in Chris Cooley, a top ten back in Portis, a serviceable offensive line, one of the better receivers in the league in Santana Moss, a strong armed signal caller in Jason Campbell, and a supposed offensive guru calling the shots, the Redskins are a premier receiver away from being highly explosive.
Since signing a seven year deal with the Redskins back in 2006, Antwaan Randle El has been everything the Redskins didn’t expect when they dangled a luxurious $31 million deal in front of the former Pittsburgh Steeler. With a dismal eight touchdowns in three seasons as a Redskin, the team is badly in need of an upgrade at his position.
Enter last year’s second round draft picks, Devin Thomas (right), and Malcolm Kelly (left). Both youngsters possess the size, hands,, and skill set to take Washington’s offense from mild-flavored to extra spicy. With game breaking athleticism and respectable speed, either of the two stand a good chance to win the starting job or significant playing time opposite Moss over the incumbent Randle El.
Selecting two potential number one receivers in the second round of 2007 provided Washington with room for error, should one of their prospects not pan out. While either would probably need a monster training camp and preseason to overtake Randle El, a solid showing out of either or both should still be enough to guarantee more playing time in the 2009 season.
With Rocky McIntosh and London Fletcher-Baker firmly entrenched at the weakside and middle linebacker positions, Washington has two athletic and productive backers who can run the field and deliver a couple of crushing blows on demand.
Going into the offseason, Washington knew if they could find a third productive backer to line up beside the duo, it would essentially make the unit one of the strengths on the team, and so our story begins.
When the Washington Redskins stumbled upon Brian Orakpo still sitting in the Green Room at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City waiting to be drafted, they jumped at the chance to select the premier pass rusher they had long been lacking in a New York minute with the 13th pick. Once they got the 6'3", 263-pound Orakpo back to D.C., they started tinkering with the idea of moving the college defensive end off the ground and in the air.
The idea wasn’t too foreign. A few scouts were predicting that Orakpo could make the transition to a pass rushing outside linebacker in a traditional 3-4 scheme. How successful Orakpo could be in a 4-3 alignment might be a different story, however. Playing in space might not necessarily be the former Lombari Award winner’s strong suit, but Orakpo possesses the elite athleticism to pull off such a switch.
Which is why the Redskins were playing their top selection at the SAM linebacker position in OTAs, giving him a chance to get adjusted to his new home before the season kicks off. Orakpo is expected to remain in the role and move to his natural strongside defensive end position on third downs, where he can focus on attacking the passer as opposed to dropping back in coverage.
Should the move work, Orakpo will give Washington blue chip athleticism at two of their weaker areas on defense. Should the move backfire, expect the team to limit Orakpo to mainly rushing the quarterback as a pass rush specialist.
No real camp battle here; the Redskins traditionally get their first-rounders on the field so the job is Orakpo’s to have. The only way he’s not the starter opening day would be due to injury.
Keys to Success
Washington’s defense was already top notch last season, playing lights out football for a good portion of the year. That defense is expected to only improve with the acquisition of the newly signed Albert Haynesworth and Orakpo.
If Washington really wants to make noise this season, it’s absolutely vital that someone step up and claim the right tackle position, and at least one of last year’s draft prospects at wideout should have a breakout year.
With the mega talent flowing heavily throughout the NFC East, the Redskins aren’t in the position to just have one of the two critical spots on offense produce.
It’s absolutely vital that a consistent second receiver emerges and the right side of the offensive line is solidified and ready to produce if Washington is to make any kind of noise in a strong division, avoiding the awkward moments frequently seen last season...such as the one in this photo.