Predicting Washington Redskins' Training Camp Standouts
New schemes and the need to fill niche roles will ensure five players in particular stand out for the Washington Redskins during training camp, which begins July 29. Among them are a trio of skill-position weapons who can be key to the success of this season's passing game.
Washington's pass offense still needs a competent backfield receiver and a sure-handed target from the slot. Both of those things can be invaluable to quarterback Robert Griffin III's protracted development.
So can a return to form for Pierre Garcon. A slight tweak to his role in the offense can get the best out of the franchise's single-season receptions record holder.
Defensively, count on Jason Hatcher quickly taking to adjusted schemes that let him attack single gaps more often. While Hatcher's improvement can spark a boost in production along the front seven, Chris Culliver will make a major difference to the success of a revamped secondary.
Read on for a more detailed account of what to expect from Washington's prospective training camp standouts.
Chris Thompson, RB
Chris Thompson is still a prime candidate to win the third-down running back spot. Actually, it's not just about seeing the field on football's money down.
It's also about adding genuine speed to the running game and being a quality outlet in the underneath passing game. Those are qualities welcome on any down.
Speed on the ground is not exactly something the Redskins can boast about. Both Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones are powerful between the tackles, but neither is ever likely to stretch a defense.
By contrast, Thompson is certainly quick enough to do just that. But first, he has to learn to add some subtlety to his acceleration and shiftiness, according to ESPN.com's John Keim:
Thompson understands what he must do at times to create better chances -- be more patient. Sometimes a quick pause is the difference between a three-yard run and a 15-yarder. It gives blockers a chance to do their jobs and it provides a better chance to read. It's not always possible to pause, but this was a topic of discussion with Thompson late last season.
Interestingly, Keim also states how new offensive line coach Bill Callahan, a noted running-game guru, has "already tweaked" some of the runs in the playbook. So training camp will provide a fascinating early insight into how a back with Thompson's style might be used.
Given Callahan's preference for power-blocking-led runs, that could mean plenty of sprint draws for the nifty 5'8" 193-pounder.
Thompson is already a good bet to make himself useful as a receiver. He has good hands and poses a major threat in space.
Yet he'll be expected to combine those skills with other vital qualities, such as the ability to block. Head coach Jay Gruden recently identified that ability as a factor in determining who will get carries this season during an interview with ESPN 980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro (h/t Rich Tandler of Real Redskins):
I think you give Alfred the bulk of [the carries] and then Matt Jones comes in there, it could be Chris Thompson, it could be Silas Redd. We'll see how camp goes to see who deserves the carries, who's going to get the carries. They have to prove then can protect the ball, No. 1, and prove they can pick up blitzes, No. 2 and then they will get some carries behind Alfred.
Ball security and solid blocking aren't exactly traits a mini marvel like Thompson is known for. His success in any area will be determined by his ability to stay healthy. He's missed 26 games in two years.
If Thompson can't convince Washington coaches he can handle the wear and tear during camp, expect the team to take a long look at undrafted rookie Trey Williams, another half-sized speedster.
Thompson has the right mix of skills to provide the extra dimension the Redskins want out of the backfield this season. He's used a full offseason to prepare for camp and is a good bet to showcase those skills at just the right time to catch the eye of his coach.
Ryan Grant, WR
It would be a shame for Ryan Grant to waste what has been—to this point, at least—a fantastic offseason by having a poor camp. That shouldn't happen considering how much 2014's fifth-round pick has already impressed Gruden and his staff.
Grant has been showcasing his natural instincts for running smart and precise routes during OTAs. Keim described how the former Tulane catch machine uses his body to outwit coverage and create space:
"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."
Gruden has certainly noticed how effective Grant can be, per another report from Keim: "He's awesome, man. He really is. He runs every route exactly like you tell him to run it. He doesn't make any mental mistakes. He's got big, strong hands."
Grant has been playing himself into contention for the vital slot receiver position. It's something Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay both realize the current passing attack still needs.
It's also something where there's still more questions than answers in terms of finding a solution. Jamison Crowder was taken off the board in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft to be a slot guy. But off-field issues have created a storm cloud over his potential to contribute right away.
Meanwhile, Washington's offense can't even rely on a veteran presence to help out. Andre Roberts is ill-suited for the role and dropped too many passes in 2014, per CSN Washington's Rich Tandler.
It would help if "move" tight end Jordan Reed could avoid injury. He's certainly an enticing weapon underneath and over the middle. If only he weren't made of glass.
Grant is the only viable candidate to play possession receiver who has made a good impression this offseason. In fact, he's done more than that.
Grant has shown Gruden what Washington's current pass offense is missing. He can continue showing the value of gaining quick separation underneath and making sure-handed grabs during camp.
Jason Hatcher, DT
Jason Hatcher didn't play to his Pro Bowl-level talent in 2014. It didn't help that his first training camp with Washington was interrupted by knee surgery.
A fit-again Hatcher will show the Redskins what they thought they were getting when they snagged him from hated divisional rivals the Dallas Cowboys a year ago. Changes to the defensive scheme will key the destructive veteran's resurgence.
Those changes are based on different techniques along the defensive line. Hatcher and his mates will no longer be expected to control gaps the way they were in the two-gap version of the 3-4 called by previous coordinator Jim Haslett.
Now, new play-caller Joe Barry will oversee a system based on linemen attacking single gaps and getting into the backfield. While in previous years Redskins ends and tackles were expected to occupy double-team blocks to keep linebackers clean, now they're being asked to split double-teams and make plays of their own.
It's a change Gruden is expecting to yield hugely positive results this season, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post:
"We want to let our defensive line go and let them get up the field—[Jason] Hatcher, you know—get the handcuffs off of them a little bit, let them get up the field. Not that they had them [handcuffs] on last year, but the frame of mind is to be a more aggressive-style defense and let them play."
That's a change in mindset Hatcher will definitely welcome. He's at his best whenever he's allowed to quickly "get up the field."
Doing that brought him 11 sacks and a Pro Bowl nod in 2013 as one of the most feared 3-technique interior pass-rushers in football. Hatcher is already anticipating a return to that level of dominance, per an interview with Redskins Nation host Larry Michael (h/t CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir):
"First of all, we're going upfield. We ain't going sideways no more. So we can make a play here and there. I'm excited about that. We're just not holding a blocker. We're the attacker now. That will be very good for us."
Hatcher should be excited, and so should Redskins fans. This is a player too good and too disruptive to endure another quiet season.
In top form, Hatcher is a game-wrecking playmaker offenses have to scheme for. Now that he's in a scheme that favors his core talents, training camp will be just the start of a road back to the ranks of the elite at his position.
Chris Culliver, CB
Chris Culliver's arrival should herald the start of Washington playing the kind of coverage scheme the team should have been operating the last few years. It's one based on aggression and pressing receivers at the line.
That's what Culliver does well. He challenges wide receivers, making them fight for every free inch coming out of their breaks.
His physical bravado also extends to a genuinely opportunistic streak down the field. Culliver will take chances in coverage.
While that approach can lead to giving up his share of big plays, it also lets him create a few, as well. Culliver snatched four interceptions and broke up 14 more passes with the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Getting their hands on the ball has been a big problem for Washington's defensive backs in recent seasons. In fact, the defense as a whole has been woefully short of big plays, the one thing 2010's switch to a 3-4 scheme was supposed to create.
Culliver's addition to a secondary also fortified by changes at safety will help ensure more turnovers and impact plays. His partnership with fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland will be one thing to watch closely during camp.
Like Culliver, Breeland is also a scrappy cover man who is never afraid to get in the face of his receiver. That has to be the modus operandi of this secondary in 2015.
Breeland was the star of an otherwise ragtag group last season. Culliver's arrival is meant to ease the burden and pressure on a player still learning his craft.
Culliver should use camp as the ideal moment to show Barry and his staff they have at least one shutdown corner they can count on in the new season.
Pierre Garcon, WR
Getting Pierre Garcon more involved in the passing game is the quickest route to improving Griffin as a quarterback. Garcon offers Washington's limited starter a big, sure-handed target underneath—one who will turn bad throws into big plays.
That value went a little underused last season. Garcon still topped Washington's catch charts, but his 68 grabs were way down from the 113 he managed in the previous campaign.
Of course, part of the drop-off was perhaps understandable after DeSean Jackson's arrival. No team would be smart wasting his awesome field-stretching speed.
But given the problems under center, it likely makes more sense for Garcon to be the focal point. In order to make that happen, Gruden is switching the positions of his two premier flankers.
Liz Clarke of the Washington Post explained what the change will look like:
"When the Redskins got back to work this offseason, Garcon frequently lined up split out wide to the right of Griffin rather than in his customary spot to the quarterback's left. According to wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, it represented an attempt to diversify the offense and get players comfortable with other roles."
That change makes Garcon the designated "Z" receiver for this season. According to Fox Sports, "The Z wide receiver tends to run more short and intermediate high-percentage routes."
Fortunately, those are the exact types of routes that perfectly suit Garcon's core skills. He's a terror after the catch thanks to a mix of deceptive speed and punishing strength.
Garcon also thrives making the difficult catches, either on errant throws by a struggling quarterback or those contested by covering defenders.
Like Hatcher, Garcon endured a difficult season in 2014 with the staff playing him in a way that didn't bring out his best. Now he's being repositioned in a system sure to let him thrive.
The first positive results will be obvious during camp.
An offseason of change has brought about improvement at key positions and created intriguing competition at others. Culliver will certainly make a difference to a more physical secondary. Meanwhile, both Thompson and Grant are potential breakout candidates in roles ideal for their niche talents and currently missing from the offense.
But some old faces are also sure to benefit from a few of the changes at Redskins Park. Smart tweaks to the schemes on both sides of the ball can get top playmakers such as Hatcher and Garcon more involved this season.
That can only be great news for a rebuilding Washington team.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.