On Saturday, Aug. 16, the Redskins travel to New York to face the Jets. As the first round of roster cuts approaches (all NFL teams must cut to a maximum of 75 players on Aug. 26), the Redskins have many questions to answer.
This has been a good week for the Redskins. On Monday, rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas returned to practice, defensive end Erasmus James began practicing with the team for the first time since being acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, and linebacker Rocky McIntosh and cornerback Carlos Rogers have seemingly completed the first major steps in their return from knee surgery by practicing all week.
And on Thursday, the Redskins ended training camp, Jim Zorn’s first as the Redskins' head coach. All seems to have gone quite well for Zorn and his Redskins. His newly installed offense (yet another version of the vaunted “West Coast offense”) has been as productive and efficient as his starting quarterback Jason Campbell has been sharp and decisive.
Showing no ill effects of having to learn his seventh new offense within the last eight years of football (including college), Campbell seems to have settled in very nicely with Zorn’s offense.
The defense has not been stellar, playing without many of its projected starters, but it has been steady. Even in the team’s first preseason game, in which defensive coordinator Greg Blache commented that his defense played like “three-day-old fish,” the Redskins’ defense only gave up 16 points (they did, however, give up 410 yards of offense) while only playing four of the team’s projected opening day starters.
Training camp has brought to light some very difficult decisions for Zorn and Vinny Cerrato (Redskins' Executive Vice President of Football Operations). Some of these difficulties have been caused by injuries, and some will be eased by injuries.
While injuries hinder some players’ ability to showcase their abilities, injuries also offer other players the opportunity to step forward and be noticed. And for the Redskins, this is no different. Injuries have already played a significant role in shaping the Redskins’ roster.
The well-publicized trade, in which the Redskins acquired star defensive end Jason Taylor, was brought about by season-ending injuries to starter Phillip Daniels and backup Alex Buzbee.
There are heated battles taking place for spots in the defensive backfield. Backup safety (both free and strong), and each backup cornerback position is up for grabs.
These are particularly important battles for the Redskins, as Springs has rarely been able to play a complete season, and fellow starter Carlos Rogers’ recovery from major knee surgery make for very large question marks at corner.
The backup DBs stand to play a major role in the upcoming season and thus are playing a major role in the preseason, as each of several youngsters tries to convince coaches and team executives that they not only can backup now, but perhaps can become starters in the future.
And so we come to the Redskins’ third preseason game. There will be some differences this week. LB Rocky McIntosh and CB Carlos Rogers will see action for the first time against the Jets, giving coaches and fans the first look at a nearly complete lineup on defense.
Second-year standout safety LaRon Landry will not play, as he continues to recover from a pulled hamstring. Landry’s absence has caused a shakeup in the defensive backfield, as veteran cornerback Shawn Springs has started one game at free safety in his stead.
Springs is slated to be the starting cornerback on the defense’s right side, leaving an opportunity for Leigh Torrence to get more reps with the first-team defense (and hopefully impress coaches into guaranteeing him a roster spot).
Rookies Justin Tryon and Matteral Richardson are also working hard to be noticed and, for Richardson at least, it seems to be working. Richardson (yet another undrafted free agent) has consistently been praised by Blache and has made plays in each preseason game thus far.
The linebacking corps is also being affected by injuries. Second-year player H.B. Blades is expected be the primary backup at middle line backer, but he suffered a knee sprain that required arthroscopic surgery to repair, and has missed the last two weeks of practice.
Once again, opening the door for another player to show himself. Second-year player Matt Sinclair and recently-signed Alfred Fincher seem to be on their way to joining Blades and veteran special-teams standout Khary Campbell in the mix to round out the linebacking corps.
Rookie Curtis Gatewood, that’s right, yet another undrafted free agent, has also played well, perhaps earning a spot on the practice squad.
The wide-receiving corps has been hampered by various minor injuries, making decisions concerning the possibility of a sixth wideout difficult for Zorn and Cerrato.
The Redskins need to decide how many wideouts to keep on the opening-day roster (many NFL teams carry five WRs, while some carry six) and second-year player Anthony Mix’s injuries could well have spelled doom for his chances of convincing the staff to make him the sixth receiver.
Mix had entered camp as the odds-on favorite to make the team ,behind backups James Thrash and fellow second-round draft picks Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly. Fourth-year player Billy McMullen has made the most of Mix’s injuries though, using his increased playing and practice time to separate himself from the rest of the group.
One of the other big questions for the Redskins entering training camp was depth along the offensive line. With an aging group (all starters are over 30-years old) the Redskins are facing the need to prepare for the future. Third-round draft pick Chad Rinehart has performed well during camp and has shown even better in each preseason game thus far.
A few surprises have also come along the offensive line. Once again, the Redskins seem to have found quality linemen outside the draft. Undrafted free agents Andrew Crummey and Devin Clark stand solid chances of at least landing a spot on the practice squad, if not on the opening-day active roster.
Second-year player Tavares Washington has also been a pleasant surprise, making the most of his opportunities, showing power and determination in run blocking, and improving his pass blocking throughout camp.
The offensive line now appears to be on track for solid depth once again, as returning backups Jason Fabini and Stephon Heyer (undrafted free agent last season) have continued to play well this preseason (though Heyer’s injury has held him out of practice for the past two weeks).
Backup right tackle Todd Wade’s injured ankle may well have cost him his job, as the emergence of Rinehart may make Wade one of the odd-men out.
And so we move on to the next round of roster battles. The Jets will bring to the field newly acquired and future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. The Jets also have many camp battles shaping up as they revamp their roster in the hope of making a run this season.
Which is yet another good thing for the Redskins, as increased intensity from Jets' players stand to provide even-better-than-normal testing for each of the Redskins' players. Favre takes the field for the first time as a Jet, and the media attention will likely be astonishing.
This is also a good thing for the Redskins. With so many important roster battles taking place, the increased national attention puts that much more pressure on each of the young players involved.
Hopefully, keeping the competition going, the Redskins can feel good about such difficulties. Some problems are actually good to have, and for the Redskins, positional competition is bringing forth not just the roster depth they need now, but perhaps future starters as well.