Ranking Washington Redskins' Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
Sacks, sacks and more sacks. That has to be the battle cry for a Washington Redskins defense that felt the collars of opposing quarterbacks just 36 times in 2014.
The team should value any player who displays a flair for rushing the passer. So it makes sense that two outside linebackers are among Washington's top five sleepers to watch during training camp.
Both know what life is like on a practice squad, and they've each also shown tantalizing glimpses of what they might do with more exposure. The duo form one half of a quartet of defensive players to make this list.
As the lone representative for the offense, a pint-sized speedster has a chance to really shake up a suddenly crowded running back rotation. His combination of quickness, versatility and move skills could prove invaluable to both phases of the team's attack.
Find out who are the five biggest sleepers to watch at Washington's camp.
Jackson Jeffcoat, OLB
If excellence really is in the blood, then Jackson Jeffcoat still has a great chance to make the grade as a quality NFL pass-rusher. His father, Jim, was an exceptional situational pressure specialist during a glittering 15-year career with Washington's archenemy the Dallas Cowboys and AFC East club the Buffalo Bills.
While the elder Jeffcoat rushed from either defensive end spot and occasionally slid inside to tackle, his son is more of an edge player. Jeffcoat the younger has the build and first-step quickness to flourish outside in a 3-4 scheme like the one the Redskins run.
The 6'3", 253-pounder showcased some of his raw talent late last season. Jeffcoat appeared in Washington's final two games and was in on five tackles, broke up a pass, notched a sack and snatched an interception.
Those numbers indicate that there is a capable playmaker waiting to be unleashed. If Jeffcoat can refine his game and build on his potential during camp, he can be a useful member of a rotation currently headlined by Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy and rookie Preston Smith.
Speaking of Murphy, he and Jeffcoat have been getting creative in a bid to stay in shape and increase their flexibility this offseason. The pair engaged in some jiu-jitsu, according to Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official site.
Among those also participating was Kansas City Chiefs sack master Tamba Hali, one of the most skilled pass-rushers in the NFL. Martial arts can be a tremendous learning aid for pass-rushers, helping teach quicker, smarter hand usage for how to outwit and disengage from blockers.
Former New England Patriots great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett was one of the pass-rushers who pioneered the use of martial-arts techniques in pressure development, per Mark Farinella of the Sun Chronicle.
All Tippett did was finish his career as New England's all-time franchise leader in sacks with 100 quarterback takedowns.
For a player on the fringes of the roster with plenty to prove, every little thing helps. Jeffcoat is taking a smart first step toward refining the core aspect of his game.
How much it boosts his chances of standing out and making the final 53 may depend on the performance of another player at his position.
Trevardo Williams, OLB
Like Jeffcoat, Trevardo Williams is another former practice-squad resident who has the potential be more. It was in the penultimate game of last season that Williams' potential was most apparent.
He made three tackles and recorded a sack in the Week 16 win over divisional foe the Philadelphia Eagles. That little snapshot of his talent for rushing the edge from a 3-4 clearly stuck in the minds of coaches because Williams has featured fairly prominently during offseason workouts.
He was a fixture with the first-team defensive unit during OTAs and minicamps. With Kerrigan undergoing and recovering from surgery, Williams became a starter, according to ESPN's John Keim.
Williams has bounced around a bit since entering the league as a fourth-round pick in 2013. But every team he's had a brief stint with has shared one thing in common: They all played a 3-4 defense.
His experience with the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals, however fleeting, can help Williams in Washington. If he continues to catch the eye of coaches, Williams is a good bet to stick on the roster as a rotational edge-rusher, a scenario that would spell trouble for Jeffcoat.
Phillip Thomas, S
Few players on the roster face as uphill a battle to make the final cut as Phillip Thomas. The third-year safety has battled injury and demotions to the practice squad. Now he must overcome increased competition.
What was once arguably the weakest position on the team is now one of its most loaded. New general manager Scot McCloughan beefed up both safety spots by adding veterans Jeron Johnson and Dashon Goldson via free agency.
He even drafted versatile rookie Kyshoen Jarrett to compete for snaps. McCloughan also brought Duke Ihenacho and Trenton Robinson back.
The extra bodies are bad news for Thomas, a player who's never really delivered on his potential since joining the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. A Lisfranc injury was his first problem, trips to the practice squad his second.
Now he's competing at a position where Ihenacho has impressed this offseason, according to ESPN reporter John Keim. But two factors could still keep Thomas relevant during camp.
The first is the benefits he'll accrue from a first full offseason since being drafted, per Stephen Czarda of the team's official site. Czarda noted how a fully healthy Thomas has been able to "concentrate on improving his game."
Czarda also detailed how Thomas' history of being a ball-hawking playmaker still counts in his favor: "Don’t forget — Thomas led the nation in interceptions during his last season at Fresno State, becoming the school’s first unanimous All-American selection in the process."
So does his versatility. CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir lists Thomas among those in the mix for a backup role at either safety spot, highlighting how he can play both the strong and free positions.
That level of flexibility is an essential string to the bow for any would-be depth player. If Thomas can improve his tackling and get this hands on the ball during camp, he'll certainly give coaches plenty to think about.
Trey Williams, RB
The Redskins need a diminutive burner from the backfield who can torment defenses as both a receiver and a lightning-fast complement to bruising duo Alfred Morris and Matt Jones.
Trey Williams is one of two candidates with the skills to make this vital role his own. He's a rookie free agent currently in competition with brittle incumbent Chris Thompson.
Yet despite going undrafted, Williams is not short of some positive press. The player himself generated a portion of the buzz after hyping his versatility as both a runner and a pass-catcher, per Turron Davenport of the Baltimore Times:
I came out of an offense that ran that style. It’s not new to me at all. If I see a hole, I am going to hit it as fast as I can. There’s no fear in me hitting a hole. When I hit a hole, I am not looking at the first person. I trust the line to do their job. I am already looking ahead at the linebacker and the free safety. I am able to pay attention to both of them at the same time. I make my moves off of that.
Williams was referring to his ability to thrive as a runner between the tackles, despite his 5'7", 195-pound frame. That's a relevant question as he bids to make a Redskins team undergoing some changes on the ground ahead of the 2015 season.
New line coach Bill Callahan will implement more power techniques to go with Washington's now long-established fondness for zone principles. His new scheme will demand tougher, inside running from those tasked with lugging the rock for the Burgundy and Gold.
But Williams doesn't just think he can handle that responsibility. He also believes his expertise hauling in passes makes him an asset to any offense, per Davenport:
When I catch the ball and I am in the secondary, I am at the third level of the defense right away. I like that! A lot of people underestimate my catching ability. I was a wide receiver my freshman year in high school. It’s an extra asset that I bring to the table.
The kind of versatility Williams believes he possesses is one reason why he's been positively compared to Darren Sproles, perhaps the most naturally explosive scatback currently plying his trade at the pro level.
Sports Illustrated's Ben Glicksman made the rather lofty comparison: "His ceiling is seen as a special teams playmaker, or perhaps a change-of-pace weapon in the Darren Sproles mold."
That's an interesting statement. It speaks to a fundamental difference of opinion regarding Williams, one best summed up by a pair of analysts during the predraft process.
Writing for the league's official site, Lance Zierlein compared Williams to De'Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs. He's a pocket-edition pace merchant who was drafted in 2014 based on a reputation to strike in a variety of ways from out of the backfield.
But Thomas is already transitioning to wide receiver on a more permanent basis after failing to show enough as a backfield weapon, according to ESPN's Adam Teicher.
Williams may not even be able to make that switch if you agree with CBS Sports' Dane Brugler's assessment of his weaknesses:
Was never the bell-cow option in college with only one 100-yard rushing performance in 36 career games and one start - has only five games on his resume with double-digit carries. Didn't return an punts at Texas A&M. Small hands and wasn't asked to run many routes or be a large part of the passing game - unreliable in pass protection with limited upside in this area.
If he can't make the grade as a receiver, Williams will be at a major disadvantage against Thompson. The latter has more than solid hands and also offers exciting talent as a returner.
Williams is a very intriguing addition, but he must use camp to show off some proficiency in one particular area. If he can, he won't stay a sleeper for long.
Frank Kearse, DT
Just like the recent inclusion of Ryan Grant on the list of dark-horse candidates to make Washington's final roster, adding Frank Kearse here is a slight cheat. After all, he's not much of a sleeper after showing a surprising knack for pressuring the pocket in 2014.
Kearse was in on three sacks last season and created a push from various spots along the D-line. But that was in a situational role and he appears to have been pushed further down the pecking order since then.
There's no other way to interpret the arrival of three new linemen this offseason and what that means for Kearse's chances of seeing the field. Ricky Jean-Francois, Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton all make life difficult for a player who can operate at both end and nose tackle.
Paea and Francois are the most obvious competition for Kearse. They'll play ends, or more likely, adjusted 3-technique tackles in new coordinator Joe Barry's one-gap scheme.
It's the emphasis on attacking gaps rather than controlling them that gives Kearse a great chance to stand out during camp. He's very adept at splitting interior gaps, particularly the B-gaps between a guard and offensive tackle, as well as the A-gaps either side of a center.
Kearse won't start this season. But he is a potentially very useful deputy behind Paea and Jason Hatcher. If he delivers during camp, he could shakeup the rotation along the front and force the team to wave goodbye to a player like two-gap end Kedric Golston.
The emergence of any one of these sleepers will make the Redskins stronger at a key position. Each player listed here has the raw skills to add a useful extra dimension to Washington's sub-package schemes.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.