6 Potential Breakout Players for Washington Redskins in 2015
Many of the changes made at Redskins Park, both at the coaching and personnel levels, have created situations ideal for breakout players. That's especially true on offense, where two young linemen and an incumbent tight end will benefit from assistant coach Bill Callahan's influence.
Defensively, new arrivals up front and in the secondary will make two young studs even more productive. The precocious duo endeared themselves to fans of the Burgundy and Gold in 2014, but are still flying under the league-wide radar.
Find out who the six potential breakout stars for the Redskins are with training camp rapidly approaching.
Honorable Mentions: Jordan Reed, TE and Ryan Grant, WR
Jordan Reed was a breakout candidate during his rookie season. He was a breakout candidate last offseason.
But it isn't just the search for fresh material that sees him miss this year's list. The reason Reed has remained a potential breakout player instead of an actual one is his inability to stay healthy.
He missed seven games in 2013 and a further five last season. Reed hasn't even survived offseason activities in 2015. He's already had knee surgery and faces a race to be fit for training camp, per Liz Clarke of the Washington Post.
CSN Washington's Rich Tandler has dubbed Reed's repeated injury woes a "major question mark." The problem is that uncertainty always has to be balanced against Reed's tantalizing potential.
In an athletic and playmaking sense, Reed is the best tight end on the roster and one of Washington's most dynamic weapons. That's why so many of us, this writer included, are guilty of believing this will be the year he finally breaks out.
But yet another injury, along with the emergence and continued development of another player at his position, mean it's time to put those thoughts on hold, at least until Reed proves he can get and stay healthy.
As for Ryan Grant, his strong offseason almost demands a spot on this list. The second-year wideout has consistently endeared himself to head coach Jay Gruden.
But Grant's excellent offseason has been just that, an offseason. As ESPN.com's John Keim notes, he's still part of a position group that's stocked with some big names, including DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. It remains unclear just how much playing time he'll get once the real action begins.
6. Spencer Long, G
Spencer Long is making a considerable leap from little-used rotational lineman to full-time starter. Long made just five appearances as a rookie in 2014. Now, though, he's Washington's starting right guard.
The scale of the jump doesn't seem to bother Gruden. Even before dismal previous starter Chris Chester was released, Washington's head coach was talking up Long's ability, per ESPN.com reporter John Keim: “We expect Spencer to have an excellent offseason, come in in better shape. When you go from your rookie year to your second year, that’s usually the biggest jump you have to make as a player."
Major improvement from last year's third-round pick is likely because of key changes to the blocking scheme. Under Callahan's direction, Washington's O-line will add power principles to its zone-based techniques.
That's something that requires bigger blockers like Long. The former Nebraska stalwart is already taking to the new system well, according to Gruden, per Rich Tandler of Real Redskins: "Spencer is a very powerful man and very good for the power running game, the gap-style blocking, but he also has some great movement skills."
Playing in a scheme more suited to what he does best will make life as a starter easier for Long. Learning from Callahan, one of the game's great teachers of the art of trench warfare, will also be a major help.
If Washington's offensive line, dreadful over the last two years, significantly improves in 2015, it will be new faces like Long who make the difference. But he won't be alone.
5. Brandon Scherff, T
If Long can expect to improve under Callahan, top pick Brandon Scherff should expect to make a lightning-fast transition to the pro game. Callahan's recent track record of quickly molding first-year linemen into NFL stars is excellent.
He made it a habit during his stint with Washington's bitter NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys. Then Callahan took rookies Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin and got them up to speed quick enough to form the foundation of one of the league's most dominant lines.
Martin was his latest success story after moving from left tackle to right guard as a rookie in 2014. Scherff was compared to Martin during the predraft process by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock (h/t Dan Parr of the league's official site).
Of course, that was when Scherff was expected to transition to guard once he entered the NFL. But he's being asked to play right tackle in Washington.
It's a switch that's already given him a few problems, according to CSN Washington's Rich Tandler: “We moved him over to right tackle and he had some struggles, but the thing about Brandon that I’ve noticed already is he takes coaching extremely well.”
But those issues, many of them likely natural teething problems inherent in changing positions, needn't be cause to sound the alarm bells. Position aside, Scherff's biggest impact could be the temperament he adds to a line that's been too soft during recent season.
B/R analyst Matt Bowen believes Scherff will bring some genuine physicality and nastiness to the group. Those qualities certainly fit with the way 2014's Outland Trophy winner played the game at Iowa.
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein described him as "more powerful than explosive, Scherff is not a scheme-specific talent and can maul or move in run game."
Meanwhile, CBS Sports' Dane Brugler and Rob Rang highlighted this aspect of his game: "Shifts his weight well and can be a wrecking ball at the second level with an eager blocking attitude and the demeanor of a wrestler, taking down rushers."
The Redskins need greater power and toughness to make their adjusted blocking schemes work. Scherff can offer those things.
If Callahan quickly teaches him a few tricks, this is a rookie with real breakout potential.
Trent Murphy, OLB
For Trent Murphy to break out, he'll have to step up his game as a pass-rusher. A second-round pick in 2014, the former Stanford man could start full-time now that Brian Orakpo has left town.
But Murphy started eight games as a rookie while Orakpo took up his familiar position on the shelf. In his absence, Murphy managed just 2.5 sacks.
That low figure worried the Redskins enough for the team to use this year's second-round pick on versatile rush end Preston Smith. He'll now push Murphy for the starting job at outside linebacker, according to ESPN.com's John Keim.
He actually believes Smith will eventually win this job:
During the spring, Murphy looked further ahead and more comfortable. He should; he’s been in the NFL for a year already. But the sense I’ve gotten is that Smith will ultimately be the starter. The Redskins really like Smith’s hands, which will help him as a rusher. Murphy struggled as a rusher last season, even late in the year: rounded rushes, getting bumped off stride too often. He rarely threatened the quarterback. It was a definite learning year for Murphy.
But there are still reasons to believe Murphy can not only make this job his own, but break out in 2015. For one thing, he's bigger, something Keim also referenced.
Murphy has added weight, per Stephen Czarda of the team's official site. He'll now be tougher to move at the point of attack.
A bulkier Murphy can use his beefed-up frame to develop a bull-rush move. Every competent pass-rusher needs a core move. Murphy hasn't found his yet, but he soon might.
It's not all about bolstering strength for Murphy though. He's even been working on improving his general flexibility.
That process has involved practicing jiu-jitsu alongside fellow outside linebacker Jackson Jeffcoat, according to Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official site. Top pass-rushers also need the agility and athletic range to bend and dip underneath blocks.
It's not as if Murphy doesn't have the basic skill to consistently pressure quarterbacks. He certainly had it at the collegiate level, leading the nation in sacks during the 2013 season.
Murphy may get more chances than Smith to put what he's learned into practice. While he's no premier edge-rusher, he's already shown a knack for setting the edge against the run and shifting into space.
Those talents are vital for a defense balanced enough to stand up to the run as well as repel the pass. So Murphy may be on the field more often, while Smith has to settle for a situational role.
New defensive coordinator Joe Barry clearly has plans for Murphy. In another ESPN.com report, Keim described how Murphy has been moving around during OTAs: "Murphy is smart and will be used all over; I've seen him stand up, rush with his hand in the dirt and play over the middle and rush. What I also like is that it appears he might rush well on stunts and set up teammates by taking out a blocker or two."
There's still plenty to like about Murphy. How well he performs during training camp will determine how soon and how often he sees the field during his second year.
If he's a regular fixture, a breakout season is on the cards.
Niles Paul, TE
While Reed continues to struggle to stay upright, Niles Paul is rapidly making the tight end position his own. He enjoyed his best-ever pro season in 2014 after catching 39 pass for 507 yards.
They were career-high numbers for the former converted wide receiver and special teams player. But what primes Paul for an even better year in 2015 is the way he isn't resting on his laurels this offseason.
Rather than standing pat, Paul is focusing on improving the weaker aspects of his game. That's meant getting bigger to get better at being a blocker.
Paul has added to his frame and now tips the scales at 252 pounds. He feels the increased bulk will make a big difference in one-on-one blocking assignments, per CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir:
I know an area I wanted to improve on a lot was blocking. I was always a willing blocker, but I was 230-pounds going against guys who were 260, 270, 280. I just wanted to level out the playing field a little bit. And it has showed up on film out here [in OTAs]. I’ve been doing a good job.
Paul's right about his performances this offseason. He's merited praise for the way he's worked and the improvements he's shown, according to ESPN's Britt McHenry.
Paul should get plenty of opportunities to put his beefier frame into action. Callahan's arrival and influence on the blocking schemes and running game is likely to call on tight ends to block more often.
A bigger Paul will win more consistently at the point of contact. He'll also be able to fight for the ball more effectively in the red zone and improve on last season's single touchdown grab.
Fox Sports' Dan Schneier views Paul as something of a "sleeping giant." Armed with a more complete skill set, he just might live up to that lofty moniker.
If he's driving people off the ball in the running game and still offering a threat as a useful "move" receiver, Paul will start to earn recognition outside of Washington.
Bashaud Breeland, CB
Redskins fans knew all about Bashaud Breeland last season. But now there are reasons to believe the rest of the league will learn about him in 2015.
After being taken in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, the ex-Clemson ace emerged as a surprise starter after veteran DeAngelo Hall tore the same Achilles twice. Breeland responded by posting 66 combined tackles, two forced fumbles, 14 pass breakups and a pair of interceptions.
He went from a surprise to the one marquee player in an otherwise diabolical defensive backfield. Now Breeland could emerge as the most important member of Washington's new-look secondary.
A lot will depend on how he responds to increased responsibility. He's been moving inside to cover the slot in nickel sets during OTAs, according to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir.
That's a key role on modern NFL defenses. More and more offenses are getting creative with how they use players from the slot.
The NFC East is loaded with receivers who can thrive from there, including Victor Cruz for the New York Giants. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles can align mismatch weapons like tight end Zach Ertz and running back Darren Sproles there.
But playing in the slot will suit Breeland's natural aggression. He loves to clamp onto receivers and challenge them immediately out of their breaks.
That's a style of play that could become the template for Washington's secondary this season. New general manager Scot McCloughan's most recent NFL stop was with the Seattle Seahawks, where he helped build the Legion of Boom, a physically punishing defensive backfield.
Press coverage became the vogue in Seattle, and McCloughan has brought it to D.C. He also added Chris Culliver, another rough and rowdy cornerback, as well as big-hitting safeties Jeron Johnson and Dashon Goldson via free agency.
Their performances will ease some of the pressure that was on Breeland a year ago, when he was the only defensive back worthy of the name.
If Breeland builds on his early promise and is turned loose in a coverage scheme that champions aggression, he'll become a cover man opposing quarterbacks fear in 2015.
Keenan Robinson, ILB
Keenan Robinson is another young defender who has many Washington fans dreaming of a better future. He stood out after being given the on-field signal-caller duties following London Fletcher's retirement.
The 26-year-old registered a team-high 109 tackles and recorded 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups and an interception. Yet Robinson is still flying somewhat under the league-wide radar.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco recently dubbed him the most underrated player on the team: "After missing all of 2013 with an injury, he emerged as a force on their defense in 2014. He is a thumper in the run game who should be better in coverage with a year of starting under his belt."
But there's reason to believe Robinson won't stay underrated for long. That reason is called Terrance Knighton.
The 6'3", 331-pounder (at least) will be the space-eating, blocker-absorbing nose tackle Washington has needed since switching to the 3-4 back in 2010. Knighton is one of the league's best at keeping linebackers clean and free to run to the ball.
That has been a major problem the last two years. Robinson won't waste the extra space and freedom he's sure to get this season.
With Knighton and fellow new boy Stephen Paea occupying double-teams, expect a monster year from this smart and ultra-athletic middle linebacker. Only failing health will let Robinson down.
But he assuaged some concerns about his durability by starting 13 games in 2014. Surrounded by better talent, Robinson will be itching to play every minute this season.
If any one of these players breaks out in 2015, the Redskins will be bolstered at a key position. The most significant candidates are the O-linemen and Murphy.
Big years from those players can bolster two of the main weak points from last season: pass protection and pass rush. Washington won't win without being better in these vital areas.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.