Ryan Grant has been one of the stars of this offseason for the Washington Redskins. He's made a great impression during minicamps and OTAs and appears primed for a bigger role in this season's passing game.
Head coach Jay Gruden has left no doubt that Grant has justified more playing time, according to ESPN's John Keim:
But I won’t hesitate one bit whether he’s our starting Z, starting X, starting inside player, what have you. I think as a wide receiver he’s very polished and he’s just waiting his turn. He is ready to go, though. I promise you that. I love Ryan Grant and what he is and what he’s about.
But what exactly can 2014's fifth-round pick add to Washington's aerial attack? Notably, the former Tulane star offers possession-style skills, the kind of sure-handed and intermediate-range reliability the Redskins receiving corps isn't exactly noted for.
Aside from Pierre Garcon, whose mix of circus catches and toughness after the catch was underused last season, Washington's passing game is very much boom or bust. It's a deep ball to DeSean Jackson or crossing the fingers to hope a pass-catcher turns a short reception into a major gain.
But where are the chain-movers and trustworthy outlets who offer a quick read and quicker route to beating pressure? Grant can fill that void because of three qualities that consistently help him win over the middle:
Moves, Toughness and Smarts
These are three qualities any receiver who doesn't boast elite size or awesome vertical speed needs to beat coverage on a regular basis. Grant displayed all of these vital traits during the limited action he saw as a rookie.
He won over the middle on a 3rd-and-10 play during the third quarter of Washington's blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2. The play began with Grant and fellow wideout Andre Roberts bunched together in the slot:
Along with Garcon, the duo were part of a trips set that would split the Jaguars' underneath coverage structure and create a void in the middle of the field.
Garcon would run a quick out to the sideline, while Roberts would drift underneath on a shallow crossing pattern. That left Grant to run a deeper slant into the middle:
He was attacking the void between Jacksonville's underneath defenders and the single-high, deep safety (off picture).
That's the concept taken care of, but this play was also an excellent example of Grant's ability to create separation out of his breaks. It's something he usually achieves via a vast array of subtle and smoothly executed moves.
In this case, that meant planting his outside foot to get his defender leaning that way:
The heavy outside step made it seem as though Grant was preparing to make a lateral move. By getting his coverage to lean that way, Grant took inside leverage away from the defender.
Now he had a free lane to work into the middle and present quarterback Kirk Cousins with a big throwing window and an easy target:
Cousins could hardly miss and promptly connected with Grant to convert a tricky down-and-distance situation.
The final thing that stood out about this play was how Grant secured a fiercely contested catch:
Reeling the ball in under intense pressure has already become a feature of Grant's game. It's a quality that speaks to his natural tenacity and strong hands.
Washington's promising young cornerback Bashaud Breeland recently highlighted the latter trait as something that helps Grant stand out, per Stephen Czarda of the team's official site: “He’s got very strong hands, so it’s very hard to get the ball out of them sometimes. He runs real good routes, so it’s 50/50 when we go at it."
It's significant how Breeland also emphasized the quality of the routes Grant runs. It's a core characteristic of his game and what he can add to this offense.
What makes Grant's route running so impressive are the layers of moves on top of moves he puts together to beat coverage. A play from later in the third quarter against the Jags brilliantly helps illustrate the point.
Grant was split out wide on the left in Washington's three-receiver set on 2nd-and-10. He would beat his coverage with a triple break, beginning with an outside step, followed by an inside move and ending with a cut back to the sideline:
After taking an initial sideways step to fake a move to the outside, Grant made a sharp break inside:
Grant then slowed his steps and began planting his feet in preparation for a cut to the outside:
He soon turned on the proverbial dime and made his route an out pattern:
Jacksonville cornerback Alan Ball (23) was now completely bamboozled. Grant had quite literally turned him inside, out. Well, outside, inside, out, to be exact:
Grant was now positioned to snatch Cousins' low throw near the sideline and turn upfield for 14 yards:
Not many, if any, of the other receivers on Washington's roster run routes this elaborate. That's high praise considering some of the marquee names the Redskins boast at the position.
But Grant is rapidly making multi-layered routes his forte. Rather than winning physical battles, he's taking a more cerebral approach to beating covering defenders, something ESPN's Keim described during OTAs:
I still like watching second-year receiver Ryan Grant. He does such a good job with his routes, with good body lean to sucker a defender on the fake. When it works, it creates several yards of separation. He'll use any part of his body to sell a fake -- head, shoulders (knees and toes, knees and toes), etc. He used a shoulder fake to cause a defensive back to lean the wrong way; alas, Kirk Cousins missed him with a high pass. Later, Grant fooled David Amerson with a cut, creating five yards of separation (more on Amerson and Grant in a post later on the defense). Grant needs to do this because he's not explosive or big. But there is a spot for him.
But Grant's smarts aren't just obvious in the way he makes his breaks. He's just as quick-witted when it comes to exploiting the holes in zone coverage.
A short-range reception during the heavy home defeat to hated foe the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17 revealed how Grant has a natural feel for the soft spots in a defense.
It came on 2nd-and-8 in the second quarter. Grant took a narrow split as the lone receiver on the left side:
He would attack the Cowboys' Cover 2 shell. Dallas planned to drop its linebackers off, along with the cornerbacks, to form a five-man underneath coverage line in front a two-deep safety bracket.
To beat this scheme, Grant would run a simple circle pattern to come to a stop in front of the linebackers' drops and behind the defensive line:
Once the ball was snapped, the Cowboys soon formed their five-under, two-deep umbrella. Grant was left wide open underneath:
He presented quarterback Robert Griffin III with an easy target and obvious lane for a quick throw in front of the linebackers:
Although the play netted only seven yards, it put the Redskins in a favorable third-down situation. It also showcased why Grant can be invaluable to this offense.
He offers the dependable, short-range target Washington's struggling quarterbacks need to see underneath. Grant is a blitz and coverage-beater who can be a safety valve whenever the man under center finds his primary reads covered or starts to feel pressure.
But over-the-middle reliability isn't the end of what Grant can do for the Burgundy and Gold's passing game:
Working the Outside
As a 6'0", 193-pounder who lacks breakaway speed, Grant screams possession receiver. But while he's no burner, he is sneaky quick—sneaky and quick enough to also make plays on the outside.
Going back to the demolition of Jacksonville, the banner moment of Grant's debut campaign (and probably Washington's season), reveals a striking example of his big-play capability.
Grant was split out wide against young Jags cover man Dwayne Gratz:
Again, Grant used an assortment of moves to leave a covering defender asking for directions. First, he broke to the inside:
But that was merely a feint to set up an outside break. Grant adjusted his feet and prepared to cut sharply toward the sideline:
At this point, he'd turned Gratz around, gotten behind him and was running vertically toward the corner of the end zone:
Grant had created so much separation that an excited Cousins almost overthrew him. But the crafty wideout saved the play by plucking the ball out of the air with a one-handed grab:
Grant then dove to secure the ball and complete a stunning catch for a gain of 21:
This play put the spotlight on the excellent hands that can make Grant a best friend to the quarterbacks in Washington. When he entered the draft, scouts were wowed by his catching ability.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler had this to say: "Good-sized hands and tracks very well, locating and watching it into his hands—natural over-the-shoulder pass catcher with good focus and reflexes."
Meanwhile, Nolan Nawrocki, writing for the league's official site, credited Grant with "one of the best pairs of hands in the draft."
This play also showcased Grant's deceptive quickness. When he was selected, B/R analyst Michael Felder endorsed Grant's "good inside, out speed":
These are attributes Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay must take greater advantage of in 2015. Grant is potentially too useful to catch a mere seven passes the way he did during his rookie season.
He's never going to take the top off a defense, nor is he going to win many tussles against press-style coverage. His struggles in that area are his main weakness.
But Grant can still be unleashed to boss the underneath zones and make some clutch grabs on the outside. For the former, including plenty of option routes, like the type Wes Welker ran for years with both the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, would be a great start.
Grant also needs to be made a factor in the red zone. Gruden wants to see major improvement in that area, according to Liz Clarke of the Washington Post.
He ought to know premier deep threat Jackson offers little inside the 20, while tight ends Jordan Reed and Niles Paul have been letdowns. A diminutive catch machine who can creep through a crowd and snatch quick throws could be the tonic for Washington's red-zone woes.
A player of that type would also be a major boost to every quarterback on the roster. Grant is an easy target because of the way he quickly gains separation and knows where to sit down in coverage.
He can make life a whole lot easier for the men under center.
Of course, fourth-round pick Jamison Crowder can offer all of these things. But Grant is the one taking his chance this offseason to impress coaches and improve his game.
Gruden, McVay and company would be foolish to ignore what he can do.
All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.