Washington Redskins: 5 Most Crucial Training Camp Position Battles to Watch

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2015

Washington Redskins: 5 Most Crucial Training Camp Position Battles to Watch

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    There aren't many positions on the Washington Redskins' 2015 roster that haven't already been settled. In fact, most of the lingering question marks involve sub-package and situational roles.

    Jobs are still up for grabs at third cornerback, third and fourth running back and slot receiver. Finding the right players for these marginal roles can add extra dimensions to the schemes on both sides of the ball.

    As for the starting level, an outside linebacker who can replace Brian Orakpo needs to emerge. Further back, choosing a strong safety can round out a revamped defensive backfield.

    Read on for a more detailed breakdown of the most crucial positional battles facing the Redskins before the team opens training camp on July 30. The competitions are ranked from least urgent to most pressing.

Third and Fourth Running Back

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Those Involved: Chris Thompson, Trey Williams, Silas Redd, Michael Hill

    Alfred Morris is going to continue being the bell cow of Washington's backfield. He'll be pushed by third-round pick Matt Jones.

    But the rest of the depth chart is one big question mark. At most, there are two spots left up for grabs. Yet there are four players competing for those places.

    Chris Thompson and Trey Williams offer very particular skills. Both are pint-sized burners who can stretch the field with the type of legitimate speed both Morris and Jones lack.

    They also offer very useful pass-catching skills, something the current rotation has missed for too long. That's a mix of skills ideal for work on third downs.

    But it isn't that simple. Thompson is the more compete player, yet he can't seem to stay healthy. Meanwhile, Williams may not be as versatile as he appears, according to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler.

    More to the point, neither Williams nor Thompson is ever likely to offer much in terms of pass protection. That's an important factor on third downs when defensive coordinators just love to send a myriad of sophisticated pressures to force running backs to block.

    That's one reason why this particular battle props up the list. Maybe the Redskins don't need Thompson or Williams for third downs.

    Not when rookie Matt Jones has surprised head coach Jay Gruden with his ability as a receiver and a blocker, per the team's official Twitter feedRich Tandler of Real Redskins believes Jones could "get a lot of snaps when the games count."

    There's also fullback Darrel Young to consider. He's a talented receiver and underrated runner who remains woefully misused.

    Even with Jones playing a diverse role, there could still be room for Silas Redd or Michael Hill to stick on the roster. Both are tough inside runners.

    Redd was a pleasant surprise last season as a crafty cutback runner and decent pass-catcher. It would be a shame to waste his versatility and temperament.

    At the moment, though, Thompson seems like the surest bet to win one half of this battle, according to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir:

    "So with all that as a backdrop, here's how I see it playing out: Gruden has always spoken very highly about Thompson's potential, his speed, his elusiveness, his versatility. Gruden is intrigued, and that matters. If Thompson stays healthy in camp and makes an impact in the preseason, I suspect he'll get the nod."

    Redd is also a very good bet to take the other spot thanks to his toughness and versatility.

Slot Receiver

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    Those Involved: Jamison Crowder, Ryan Grant

    This is a very tricky one to call. On the surface, fourth-round rookie Jamison Crowder should finally give Washington's passing game the big-play threat from the slot it's been missing.

    Shortly after the former Duke sensation joined the team, Gruden was already talking up his potential to work the inside, per 247Sports' Jamie Oakes: "He's got all the traits we you want in a slot receiver, and obviously, he's a heck of a punt returner."

    Those return skills may be Crowder's best bet for seeing off Ryan Grant, who's been one of the stars of this offseason. Grant has sure hands and a real talent for baffling coverage with subtle moves out of his breaks.

    His skills could be too well-developed for Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay to waste this season. The former has already indicated he won't be shy about giving Grant his chances in 2015, according to El-Bashir: "But I won't hesitate one bit whether he's our starting Z, starting X or starting [slot receiver]."

    That's potentially very bad news for Crowder. His offseason has already been blighted by allegations of domestic violence, per Todd Dybas of the Washington Times.

    Choosing which of these pass-catchers to feature in the slot will largely come down to what Gruden really wants from the position. If he wants a dependable, possession-style outlet who will give his quarterbacks a quick and easy read, he'll opt for Grant. The ex-Tulane ace can be a nice complement to the big-play exploits of primary trio DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts.

    But if Gruden wants yet more explosive speed around signal-caller Robert Griffin III, he'll likely opt for the more dynamic Crowder. That'll be a tough call to make given how much Grant has impressed during OTAs. Crowder has a lot of work to do to catch up.

    Yet Washington's offense needs a true slot receiver. If nothing else, a dedicated player at the position can free Roberts to work the outside more often, the strength of his game.

    The one reason this battle doesn't rate higher is the presence of "move" tight ends Jordan Reed and Niles Paul. Each is highly effective whenever he's flexed into the slot. They can each offer the qualities both Grant and Crowder boast, with the added bonus of greater size to create mismatches in coverage.

Outside Linebacker

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Those Involved: Trent Murphy, Preston Smith

    There may be a slight question about depth at outside linebacker, where raw prospects such as Jackson Jeffcoat and Trevardo Williams are competing to stay on the roster. But the bigger issue is finding a definite replacement for Brian Orakpo.

    That won't be easy considering there are questions about the pass-rushing chops of both Trent Murphy and Preston Smith. A pair of second-rounders, they are each conversion projects from defensive end.

    That's the normal path trodden by players who end up as edge-rushers in 3-4 schemes. The problem is neither Murphy nor Smith seem explosive and agile enough to consistently collapse the pocket from the outside.

    Murphy registered a mere 2.5 sacks as a rookie. Meanwhile, B/R analyst Michael Felder doesn't think Smith can play outside.

    That leaves new defensive coordinator Joe Barry with a dilemma. He needs a player who can bookend Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan in Washington's base defense while also creating a ton of pressure in sub-package schemes.

    Murphy has the first part taken care of. As a rookie, he proved tough against the run and capable of bailing into coverage without being too much of a liability.

    But can Murphy be flexible enough to crash the edge and chase down quarterbacks? That's debatable after he added bulk to his 6'5", 258-pound frame this offseason, per Stephen Czarda of the team's official site.

    Gruden is expecting more from the former Stanford man in his second year, according to Liz Clarke of the Washington Post. But new general manager Scot McCloughan used a second-round pick on Smith for a reason.

    He's highly flexible, able to rush from multiple spots. If he can quickly transition to standing up more often, Smith might offer more to the overall playbook.

    But Murphy is not exactly a static figure. He played all over at Stanford and has spent this offseason moving around, per ESPN's John Keim.

    Murphy is the good bet to win this battle while Smith learns the ropes in a situational role.

Third Cornerback

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Those Involved: DeAngelo Hall, David Amerson

    This should be one of the more intriguing battles during training camp. DeAngelo Hall is coming back after tearing the same Achilles twice, while David Amerson is battling to save his career after two dismal seasons as a starter.

    Hall wants to be back early, but the team is going to preach caution, per El-Bashir. He indicated Hall faces an uphill battle landing a prominent role in this season's revamped secondary.

    El-Bashir noted that new signing Chris Culliver and last year's rookie star Bashaud Breeland started on the outside during minicamp. The latter moved to the slot in the nickel, while Amerson took his place on the perimeter.

    But Amerson won't be doing that once the real action starts—at least, he won't without major improvement. Washington's second-round pick in 2013 has been routinely beaten, particularly deep.

    Amerson needs to sharpen up his instincts and make it tougher for receivers coming out of their breaks. If he can't and Hall gets healthy, Amerson will be a forgotten figure at this position.

Strong Safety

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Those Involved: Duke Ihenacho, Jeron Johnson

    Washington's new-look secondary pretty much picks itself, at least at three of the four primary spots. Culliver and Breeland should line up at cornerback, while new boy Dashon Goldson is the free safety.

    But no such certainty exists at the other safety spot. Duke Ihenacho and Jeron Johnson have spent the offseason sharing reps.

    Still, the issue remains unresolved, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post:

    "Ihenacho, who is coming off of a foot injury that cost him the bulk of the 2014 season, and Johnson—a special teams ace and backup in Seattle while stuck behind Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas before signing with Washington—spent the offseason rotating at strong safety."

    Picking a winner is no easy task. As a player known to McCloughan from the GM's days with the Seattle Seahawks, Johnson would appear to have the inside track.

    His experience backing up stud safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas would appear to count in his favor. But truthfully, how much vital experience has Johnson gleaned from sitting on the bench for the last four seasons?

    He's made just one start in that time but remained a key figure on special teams. While the Redskins need plenty of the latter, a lone start hardly recommends a player to be a full-time safety.

    Ihenacho offers more experience. He started 14 games for the Denver Broncos in 2013. Yet one of the drawbacks to having more material to consult is more evidence of Ihenacho's shortcomings.

    He's certainly a heavy hitter, but his range is questionable and he can take poor angles in coverage. After years of Reed Doughty, Bacarri Rambo and Brandon Meriweather doing the same, Washington's pass defense needs a more stable presence.

    Choosing the right player at this spot is the most crucial decision remaining as the Redskins head into training camp. The secondary has been the bane of the team for too long.

    But that should change following Breeland's emergence and McCloughan's work during free agency. The only thing that will undermine the new group is a weak link at strong safety.

    ***

    The battles listed here will be very familiar to all those who've tracked Washington's offseason. But an absence of fresh material is actually a very good thing in this case.

    The fact new battles haven't been created by question marks at other positions is an indicator of how much more settled Washington's roster looks headed into the new season. It's also good news that aside from strong safety and third corner, none of the positions on this list can significantly undermine the Redskins if things go wrong.

    The Burgundy and Gold are now strong enough at the core positions, such as the trenches and primary skill players, to survive.

    All statistics and player information via NFL.com.

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