Washington Redskins Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
As usual with the Washington Redskins, one storyline will dominate all others at training camp, the same way it will once the 2015 NFL regular season begins. It concerns the continued development of quarterback Robert Griffin III in head coach Jay Gruden's offense.
The two formed an uneasy partnership during 2014's dire 4-12 campaign. But Griffin is now fully healthy, has a dedicated position coach and even got a few more weapons, as if he needed any, via the 2015 NFL draft.
So the onus is now on 2012's disappointing second overall pick to finally put it all together this season. Of course, significant improvement from the group in front of him can help Griffin immensely.
That means better play along an offensive line now expertly tutored by noted lineman whisperer Bill Callahan. But Callahan aside, a big key to that improvement will be left tackle Trent Williams' health.
The Pro Bowler is one of four key players who still need to rebound from injuries to be factors during camp. It's a group that also includes defensive stalwart Ryan Kerrigan and veteran cover man DeAngelo Hall.
The latter is part of a position group heavily bolstered during this offseason. If Hall can't get back to his best, his bloated contract might even push him off the roster altogether. He won't be alone.
Find out about five of the most prominent early storylines worth keeping an eye on at Washington's camp.
Key Injuries Need to Heal
Williams will continue to be the cornerstone of Washington's O-line, even after the team drafted tackle Brandon Scherff fifth overall. The problem is he's still hobbled by an ankle injury.
That leaves 2010's fourth overall pick sidelined at a time when Callahan is stressing new techniques. Remember, power-based principles will be a feature of this season's blocking scheme. Williams has spent his first five pro seasons executing the mobile, zone-style stretch blocking Gruden's predecessor, Mike Shanahan, installed.
To complicate matters, there are differing views about exactly when Williams will be ready. CSNWashington.com reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler offered these assessments.
El-Bashir is concerned by how long it's taking Williams to bounce back:
Williams is tough and able to play through pain; we witnessed that last season. But this ankle injury, which he suffered in the regular season finale and aggravated in Pro Bowl practice a few weeks later, was still sore enough six months later to keep him out of veteran minicamp. Six months. That’s an awfully long time to be dealing with a sprain, and you can bet it’s something everyone will be watching closely in the opening days of camp.
By contrast, Tandler believes the 6'5", 337-pounder will be ready for both camp and the start of the real action. Yet Tandler also thinks Williams' sketchy durability could be a factor come contract-negotiation time, an important consideration for a player who will be a free agent in 2016.
And speaking of contracts, Williams is on the last year of his deal. It’s great that he can play through pain as Tarik noted. But the Redskins, or any team, will be hesitant to pay premium left tackle dollars to someone who seems to be playing on one leg on a regular basis.
Tandler and El-Bashir also discussed the health of Kerrigan, Hall and made-of-glass tight end Jordan Reed. But while every member of that trio is important, particularly premier pass-rusher Kerrigan, Williams is the one to watch.
The improvements made to the O-line, both at the coaching and personnel levels, will count for naught if the unit's best player is stuck in the treatment room.
Is DeAngelo Hall Primed for the Exit?
Maybe that ought to read should DeAngelo Hall be primed for the exit? That's become a relevant question after the 31-year-old ruptured the same Achilles twice last season.
The uncertainty surrounding him has been compounded by the emergence of 2014 fourth-rounder Bashaud Breeland. Combined with San Francisco 49ers starter Chris Culliver's arrival during free agency, Breeland's ascent means the Redskins are no longer so reliant on Hall.
It also means the veteran may struggle to find an obvious role in the current revamped defensive backfield. Breeland and Culliver look like locks as the starters on the outside.
Maybe Hall could take the slot corner role, a position he played during the 2012 season. So far, though, that's not how things have played out this offseason.
During an interview with CSNWashington.com, Tarik El-Bashir stated that Breeland had been moving inside in nickel sets, while deposed starter David Amerson manned the edge as a third corner.
Of course, the picture would likely look very different if Hull were fully healthy. Unfortunately for the 12-year pro, he's not there yet.
In fact, Hall remains content to take a cautious approach to getting back on the field, per CBS DC reporter Brian McNally. Prudence is not a bad policy for an aging player coming back from a particularly bad injury.
Yet, Hall is relying on time he doesn't really have. He doesn't have the luxury of time because of the better options in this season's secondary.
Those options, along with Hall's hefty contract, could bring an early end to his career with the Burgundy and Gold. Rich Tandler of Real Redskins named Hall as one of five veterans hovering dangerously close to the roster bubble as the season approaches.
"I’ve noted a few times lately that his $4 million salary puts him in danger of being faced with the choice of being cut or taking a reduction in pay," he wrote. "His job security is that if he left the No. 4 corner would be Tevin Mitchel, a very raw rookie."
The point about shaky depth without Hall holds true and is the one saving grace of his current situation. Not only is Tevin Mitchel an unproven sixth-rounder, but Amerson has also struggled mightily since entering the league in 2013.
It's also true that while Breeland looks like a budding star, he still remains very inexperienced. In this context, it might be worth staying patient and giving Hall the time he needs to fully recover. The rewards could be great.
After all, he's shown in the past a talent for locking down marquee receivers such as Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson. Playing in an NFC East that's loaded at the wideout position will demand at least three quality cornerbacks.
Hall's age, health and salary naturally make him a potential candidate for the cap-saving chop. But this secondary may still need what he brings to the field.
How Joe Barry's New-Look Defense Takes Shape
There's a lot of change going on with Washington's defense headed into the new season. In fact, new is the word.
There's a new play-caller in Joe Barry, a new secondary coach in Perry Fewell and a new line coach in Robb Akey. They form the backbone of a staff expected to change the personality of the team's 3-4 defense.
There'll be no more traditional, two-gap caution. That's been replaced by an emphasis on attacking gaps and letting D-linemen loose, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post and ESPN.com's John Keim.
Barry and his coaches have plenty of new weapons to help put these plans into practice. They include tackles Stephen Paea, Ricky Jean Francois and Terrance Knighton.
The latter is likely to be the most important addition as the nose guard and natural focal point of Washington's unit. Knighton is already touting the position group he'll lead for big things this season.
He even gave the unit a nickname during an interview with Redskins Nation (h/t Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official site):
'The D-Line, we call ourselves capital punishment,' later inferring that the push on the line will have a ripple effect on the secondary, which, will, in turn, slow down Dez Bryant, which will, in turn, slow down the Cowboys, and, ultimately, disrupt their championship, if not playoff hopes.
It's a little too early for nicknames, especially since this new-look line has yet to play a down together. How Knighton and his mates perform is just one of four key questions regarding 2015's defense.
The others concern a remodelled secondary that still needs a starting strong safety to emerge. It also needs free safety Dashon Goldson to turn the clock back to his Pro Bowl form of 2011 and 2012.
Barry also has to choose the right edge-rusher to complement and ease the burden on Kerrigan. That means guessing right between a pair of second-round picks, Trent Murphy and Preston Smith.
It would help if Keenan Robinson stays healthy on the inside while the other man in the middle, Perry Riley Jr., rebounds from a dismal 2014.
This defense does look stronger than last season's unit. How much stronger will depend on the answers to these questions.
Finding those answers is a process set to begin in earnest during camp.
How Alfred Morris Handles Change, Competition and Pressure
On an individual level, this has to be the most tumultuous offseason Alfred Morris has experienced since the Redskins drafted him in the sixth round in 2012.
He's entering a contract year coming off his worst season as a pro. The blocking in front of Morris is set to change, while the Redskins used a third-round pick to select Matt Jones, a not-so-subtle indicator they'll move on from three-time 1,000-yard rusher Morris if they have to.
That adds up to a heady brew of change, competition and pressure for Washington's workhorse of choice. Training camp will offer a clear window into how Morris is coping with each of those things.
But the real indicator will come once the season begins. It will mostly be revealed by how many carries Morris gets. Gruden wasn't exactly generous in this area during 2014.
Rich Tandler of Real Redskins offered this prediction for how things may work for this season's running game:
Who will carry the ball? Gruden has assured us on multiple occasions that Alfred Morris is still the workhorse running back so until I see something different I’ll believe him. Morris carried 265 times last year so let’s say stays right around in that area. Rookie Matt Jones should get the 40 carries that the departed Roy Helu had last year and then some, perhaps 100 total.
That scenario still puts Morris in the box seat in terms of carrying the load. Now he has to justify that continued faith.
That could be tough for a back who's not elite, according to ESPN.com's John Keim. Morris even sort of agreed with Keim's critique via his personal Instagram account (h/t Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post).
Keim had noted how Morris' numbers have gone down every year he's been in the league. The low point came last season when he registered career-worst stats for yards and average yards per carry. But Morris also received the fewest carries in his career.
He's actually a very good bet to bounce back now that the Redskins are planning, well, talking about it at least, per Keim, to emphasize the running game in 2015. A Callahan-coached line that's bigger than last season's version should bring out the best in a player who has averaged over four yards a carry in each of his three pro seasons.
Morris certainly has little room for error. If he does falter, Jones is ready to take his place. He'll also be dubbed just another product of the Shanahan zone system. Then you can expect Morris to walk during 2016's free-agency period.
Training camp will offer the first indicator of whether Morris' career is headed that way or if he's primed for a major revival this season.
Robert Griffin III Getting It
The light just has to go on for Griffin this summer. Washington can be a playoff team in an NFC East that's not as strong as it pretends to be. But only competent quarterback play can make that happen.
The challenge facing Griffin is to refine his game at almost every basic level. It's a process new quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh has already put in motion, according to Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Cavanaugh can make a major difference for both Griffin and the Redskins. His adherence to the fundamentals can improve the habits of a raw quarterback, both on and off the field.
That means more film study, a quicker release and knowing when to live and fight another play. All of those things can make Griffin a better quarterback and Washington a better team.
But it won't all be down to Griffin. Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay must do their part. In this case, their part means installing an offense that lets Griffin do what he does best.
If that means regularly moving the pocket and throwing off play action, then so be it. If it means expanding the short game to present Griffin with quick and easy reads, then do that.
Whatever Gruden decides is the right formula has to be the staple of this season's offense. But it has to be a Griffin-friendly formula. Right or wrong, there's no other way around it with a quarterback who is limited yet still has a firm grip on the keys to the kingdom.
Training camp will highlight the extent of the progress, if any, Griffin and his coaches are making in the areas that, for better or worse, will define Washington's season.
Once camp opens on July 30, be sure to keep a close eye on the storylines examined here.
All statistics and player information courtesy of NFL.com.