The 2008 NFL preseason kicks off Sunday with the Hall of Fame Game, featuring the Washington Redskins versus the Indianapolis Colts. For Redskins fans, there aren’t many competitions for starting positions to watch. Punter, defensive tackle, and surprisingly, wide receiver may even be up for grabs.
So what should we be watching for? Yesterday, I looked at the offense. If you missed it, you can read it here. Today, I’ll take a closer look at the defense.
As with the offense, the starters are pretty well set. The only real competitions seem to be at defensive tackle and safety. While there are several other positional battles worth watching, I’ll begin with starting positions up for grabs.
Third-year players Anthony Montgomery and Kedric Golston are involved in a “heated” battle for the starting spot opposite veteran stalwart Cornelius Griffin. This is a good competition to watch, but this week, we will only get to see Golston on the field, as Montgomery will sit out due to a broken bone in his hand.
Defensive coordinator Greg Blache said in an interview recently that Golston would have taken the starting spot from Montgomery, if the Redskins had advanced past the Wild Card matchup against the Seattle Seahawks last season.
I heard that Montgomery (“Monty”, as he is called around practice) is one those players who needs to be pushed in practice regularly to stay focused, and Blache believes Golston has been able to do just that thus far in training camp.
Lorenzo Alexander is assured a roster spot, due largely to his versatility, as he is able to play offensive guard as well as defensive tackle. Ryan Boschetti, signed as an undrafted rookie in 2004, has been a reliable backup, and he looks to continue that this season.
Matthias Askew spent training camp with the Redskins in 2007 but was cut before the start of the season. He is working hard not to repeat that this season. Second-year player Zarnell Fitch is a long shot to make it past the first round of roster cuts, but he could end up on the practice squad if he has a good showing in the preseason.
LaRon Landry, entering his second season, was the named the starter at free safety and has no challengers. Look for a strong year from Landry, as he appeared to be very comfortable at the position during the stretch run into the postseason in 2007.
At strong safety, third-year player Reed Doughty played well opposite Landry in 2007, once he settled in as the starting strong safety. He did not play well while filling in for then-injured Sean Taylor at the free safety spot, playing a major role in giving up four touchdowns to the Cowboys’ Terrell Owens in Week 11.
When former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams switched Doughty to strong safety and moved then rookie LaRon Landry to free safety, both excelled and played a major role in leading the Redskins into the postseason.
Newcomer Stuart Schweigert, signed to a free-agent contract from the Oakland Raiders, played at free safety with the Raiders and is widely considered the better overall player, but he is a natural free safety. How will he adjust to the strong-safety position remains to be seen.
Both players figure to see a lot of playing time opposite Landry, no matter who starts.
Rookies Kareem Moore and Chris Horton will need to show that they can play on special teams to make the opening-day roster as backups at either safety spot. Versatility could be key for each player vying for the safety positions. If any of these players show that they could also play corner in a pinch, it could be what sets them apart from the others.
Horton has received praise from coaches during camp, and Moore has yet to participate in any practices, due to recent knee surgery. Moore will have to be impressive to make the opening-day roster.
The rest of the battles will be centered on backup positions. Many of these battles are likely to be critical to the Redskins' defensive performance in 2008.
With several key starters returning from injury, the backups are likely to see plenty of playing time in 2008. One of the most intriguing battles is going to be for the third and fourth cornerback spots.
Veterans Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot will start the season as the No. 1 and No. 2 corners.
Fourth-year man Carlos Rogers is returning from reconstructive knee surgery and figures to be a big question mark. He has stated several times that he expects to return for the start of the regular season, but even if he is medically cleared, it is not likely he will reach 100 percent pre-injury condition this season.
Most players returning from this type of surgery, Rogers tore both the ACL and MCL in November of 2007, are not able to reach pre-injury performance levels until the season following their medical clearance.
Rogers’ status creates a dilemma for the Redskins. He is likely to start the season on the PUP list (physically unable to play), giving the team up to six weeks to decide whether or not he can play, making the decision on who to keep on the active roster a critical one.
Forth-year player Leigh Torrence earned most of the playing time last year following Rogers’ injury, surprisingly beating out veteran David Macklin and every other corner who started the season ahead of him on the depth chart in 2007.
He has the upper hand in the competition for the nickelback position, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. He will be pushed by several players. Rookie Justin Tryon has performed well in camp, and second-year player Byron Westbrook, younger brother of Philadelphia Eagles’ running back Brian Westbrook, has also looked good after spending last season on the practice squad.
Cedric Holt is also trying to make a name for himself, and could easily earn a spot on the practice squad. Rookie Matteral Richardson had a solid college career, but has not looked the part thus far in camp.
At linebacker, the starters are also set, with veterans Marcus Washington and London Fletcher returning as the incumbents. Third-year player Rocky McIntosh, like Rogers, is returning from reconstructive knee surgery. But McIntosh’s injury was not as severe as Rogers’, and he is expected to be fully recovered by opening day.
McIntosh had question marks concerning his knees entering the 2006 draft, and those questions remain, making the backup linebackers just as important.
Second-year player H.B. Blades and veteran Khary Campbell are virtually guaranteed roster spots. As a rookie, Blades earned significant playing time while filling in for both McIntosh and Marcus Washington at times, and he figures to be the heir apparent to veteran London Fletcher at middle linebacker.
He has also been a standout special-teams player, increasing his value considerably.
Campbell has long been a special-teams player, but has also played well in a reserve role over his four years with the team. Second-year players Danny Verdun-Wheeler and Matt Sinclair have both earned praise during camp from coaches, and both stand a good chance of making the roster.
Third-year man Rian Wallace and rookie Curtis Gatewood have also reportedly performed well in camp, but special-teams play will be a key factor for all of these players.
On the defensive line, veteran DE Demetric Evans has looked like a new man in camp. Evans followed fellow DE, and personal mentor, Phillip Daniels’ offseason workout regimen, and it has shown dividends through training camp thus far.
Since newly-acquired defensive ends Jason Taylor and Erasmus James won’t play this week, we will get the opportunity to see Evans and late-round draft pick Rob Jackson on the field Sunday night. Third-year player Kevin Huntley will also likely see plenty of playing time this week; he will need to standout to make the final roster.
For the Redskins, difficult decisions will need to be made concerning the defensive line. How many defensive linemen will they carry on the opening-day roster? Fourth-year player Chris Wilson (he played two years in the Canadian Football League before signing with the Redskins prior to training camp in 2007) earned praise throughout the 2007 season for his hard work and improvement.
He flashed some of this improvement throughout the season in a reserve role, recording four sacks and 15 tackles in the regular season, and two sacks in the playoff loss to Seattle.
With James trying to recover from knee surgery, and being a relatively unknown quantity, and J. Taylor making the transition to a new team and a new defense (and likely switching sides), the coaches will be taking chances, no matter the answer to that question. They will likely be looking for these players to show versatility by being able to play inside tackle as well as defensive end.
There is no competition at place kicker, as Shaun Suisham, entering his fourth year as a pro, is all alone in camp. Last year, he connected on 29 of 35 field-goal attempts and 29-of-30 PATs for 116 points. A solid performance. He will look to continue that this season.
Most teams round out their rosters using special-teams play as the defining factor in determining the backup players. The Redskins will be no different. For insight into who has the best chance of making the final roster, we will be best served to watch special teams closely.
While there are many names we are not familiar with, there is plenty to pay attention to. So print out those rosters and watch closely.
LB H.B. Blades is being listed as out for three to four weeks following a knee scope. While this will not likely hurt his chances of making the final roster, it does open up opportunities for the young linebackers vying for roster spots to get on the field even more.
CB Carlos Rogers participated in a full practice on Tuesday, his first full practice since injuring his knee last season. While he will be monitored closely, this is a good sign for him and the Redskins. His situation is to be watched closely.
Defensive lineman Zarnell Fitch has been cut to make room for another tackle, Babatunde Oshinowo. Oshinowo is a former sixth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, and he comes to the Redskins from the Chicago Bears.