Breaking Down Washington Redskins' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup
One very active offseason means a host of new faces for the Washington Redskins starting lineup this season. Most of those changes are evident on defense where seven new starters are expected.
General manager Scot McCloughan has bolstered both the front seven and secondary. His bid to remake the Redskins will be defined by his defense.
Offensively, the key changes are apparent along the offensive line. McCloughan and the coaches want a bigger, tougher group. Handing starting berths to top draft pick Brandon Scherff and second-year man Morgan Moses is supposed to key that transition.
Find out what the starting lineup will look like for the Week 1 clash with the Miami Dolphins.
Quarterback: Robert Griffin III
Despite two seasons of poor performances, injuries, benchings and tension with his coaches, Robert Griffin III still has the faith of the Washington hierarchy. That means RG3 is the season-opening starter.
It also means the clock starts to tick on his attempts to get comfortable in head coach Jay Gruden's offense. Griffin needs to work from the pocket more often, making quicker decisions and more accurate throws.
An offseason spent working with new quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh will certainly help. The effects of that work are already evident to McCloughan.
He came away from the team's preseason opening win over the Cleveland Browns impressed with No. 10's play, per Howard Fendrich of the Baltimore Sun: "Liked it a lot. Liked it a lot. I see improvement. Liked it a lot. I see confidence. I see ball out on time. I see a good football player."
Getting the ball out on time is the top priority for Griffin this season. It's the only way he'll build the confidence McCloughan claims to be seeing.
A more confident quarterback is one who can push the ball down the field and deliver on every facet of the offense. Both of those things will be tall orders against a Dolphins defense loaded with talent up front.
It will be the first tough test of a pivotal season for 2012's second-overall pick.
Running Back: Alfred Morris Fullback: Darrel Young
Alfred Morris remains the starter after a trio of 1,000-yard seasons lugging the rock for the Burgundy and Gold. Morris also made a strong start to preseason, amassing 42 yards on eight carries against the Browns, per CSN Washington's Rich Tandler.
Even in a contract year and with third-round pick Matt Jones vying for carries, Morris will be the key figure of this offense. The Redskins are already promising to feature the run more often than they did last season, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport (h/t Kevin Patra of the league's official site).
It's a promise that didn't look like an empty one in Cleveland. Tandler noted how the Redskins ran the ball on over half of their offensive plays in Ohio.
So Morris will get every chance he needs to earn a lucrative new deal for his fifth pro season. His chances will hinge on how well he adapts to the ground scheme directed by new O-line guru Bill Callahan.
On Callahan's watch, there'll be some deviation from the outside, zone-stretch system Morris has operated in since joining Washington as a sixth-rounder in 2012. Now it's safe to expect more inside zones and power-style concepts.
Part of the revamp will include utilizing fullback Darrel Young more often. That's great news for Morris considering the converted linebacker is a crushing lead-blocker.
Washington's paper-thin and injury ravaged tight end situation also means Young and his versatility as a receiver should be a regular fixture in the backfield this season.
Wide Receivers: DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts
Right now, Pierre Garcon is the only sure thing at wide receiver. DeSean Jackson is still nursing a shoulder injury that held him out of the Browns game and the final sessions at training camp. Meanwhile, fellow veteran Andre Roberts has had an uneven offseason.
Yet you should still count on this trio being fully healthy and up to speed by the time the season opener rolls around. Garcon and Jackson are locks as the primary starters. The latter's matchup with Miami's premier cover man Brent Grimes is particularly intriguing.
The main question mark here is Roberts. More specifically, it's his suitability for the third wideout role. It's not really a position that suits the former Arizona Cardinals pass-catcher's flair for going deep.
It's also true that rookie Jamison Crowder and second-year pro Ryan Grant both offer qualities ideal for the slot. Significantly, Grant started ahead of Roberts against Cleveland in place of the injured Jackson.
But the veteran did himself a few favors with a solid outing in Ohio. Roberts hauled in four catches for 71 yards, with most of his work coming over the middle.
Roberts wasn't the clutch target the Redskins needed during his first year in D.C. But he's too good to write off after just one season.
Tight End: Jordan Reed
It really is a case of last man standing here. Washington suffered a big blow when Niles Paul was lost for the season after fracturing his ankle in Cleveland. A one-time wide receiver, Paul had steadily developed into a very useful target at tight end. He was also bulking up to become a better blocker.
Speaking of blocking, the Redskins received another blow when Logan Paulsen was also ruled out for the year following toe surgery, per Andrew Walker of the team's official site. At 6'5" and 261 pounds, Paulsen was the closest thing this offense had to a competent blocker at the tight end position.
That's something that can be invaluable to a team looking to get more physical, particularly on the ground. Prior to Paul's injury, it was notable how many times the Redskins deployed two-tight end sets against the Browns.
Right now, Gruden has trouble finding two able bodies at the position. McCloughan has signed D.J. Williams and Ernst Brun Jr. in the wake of Paul and Paulsen's injuries, according to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir.
Yet Washington will wait on another injury to heal before feeling okay about the starting spot. The job will be Jordan Reed's to lose if he can finally (finally) stay healthy.
Made-of-glass playmaker Reed is currently getting over a hamstring problem. Encouragingly though, Mike Jones of the Washington Post detailed how Reed's recovery is going well: "Reed is, however, making progress. He went through the morning walkthrough, where pass catchers jog through their routes, and he moved without complications."
By now, every Redskins fan knows the book on Reed. He's outrageously gifted as a roving matchup nightmare. But he has to actually be off the treatment table long enough to deliver on his potential.
In a very bizarre twist of irony, injuries may help the most brittle player on the roster reclaim the job he'd already lost this offseason.
Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Kory Lichtensteiger, Brandon Scherff, Morgan Moses
So much hinges on the success of this group. Namely, Griffin's development and the revival of the ground game depend on the play of these five guys.
Fortunately, three of the five spots seem secure. Left tackle Trent Williams is a Pro Bowler who continues to dominate, despite an injury interrupted offseason.
Writing for the Post, Jones described how Williams, who is back from a knee problem, impressed at camp:
Williams has dominated his pass-rushing teammates in practices in camp, winning matchups both in 1-on-1 drills, 2-on-2 drills and full team action. He’s handily neutralized Trent Murphy, and Ryan Kerrigan has said Williams 'makes you feel really bad about yourself.'
Jones also detailed how Williams made prolific pass-rusher Junior Galette pay for trying to bull rush him.
But while Williams has RG3's blindside taken care off, things are nowhere close to as clear on the right edge. That's where Moses is pencilled in after a disappointing, injury ravaged rookie campaign.
Moses struggled in his most recent camp outing. He was up against Ryan Kerrigan, admittedly one of the league's best edge-rushers. Kerrigan proved too much for Moses, per Jones.
A lot is going to be asked of Moses this season, but it's nothing compared to the pressure on Scherff. Selected fifth overall in this year's draft, Scherff has already moved from right tackle to guard this offseason.
Liz Clarke of the Washington Post felt Scherff performed well along the interior against Cleveland. To be honest though, Scherff was pushed back a few times by Desmond Bryant and Randy Starks.
Ironically, for a player noted for his run-blocking prowess, Scherff looked a little more assured protecting the passer. When he was helping out the rushing attack, Scherff did look good shifting into space at the second level, a critical staple of any scheme based on zone plays.
Scherff is in for a major test in the season opener when he squares off with premier defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He's a more natural fit inside, but his performances between now and Week 1 will demand close monitoring.
Jason Hatcher, Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea
This line pretty much picks itself after McCloughan invested free-agency dollars in Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea. Both are physically imposing defensive tackles who give Washington the power and disruption this 3-4 front has missed for most of the last five seasons.
Paea was handled a little too easily against the Browns. Yet he's a highly capable interior pass-rusher after logging six sacks for the Chicago Bears last season.
His ability to split gaps and get into the backfield often will be more important than his efforts holding up and controlling blockers. Paea, like every member of the defensive front seven, can count on Knighton to do those things.
That's how the player dubbed "Pot Roast" has made his name. Well, sort of. Knighton is the premier nose guard every 3-4 defense needs.
What will be fascinating is seeing how Knighton and Paea's arrivals impact Jason Hatcher. He flopped as a marquee signing last offseason.
But the 33-year-old is a true game-wrecker at his best. Hatcher should face more one-on-one matchups in the new season. That's usually a recipe for disaster for an offense.
OLB: Junior Galette, Ryan Kerrigan ILB: Perry Riley Jr., Keenan Robinson
Junior Galette's arrival changes the picture here. He's a good bet to win the starting outside spot on the weak side.
That would require supplanting second-year man Trent Murphy. Jones stated how Murphy has stayed the starter in camp and continues to impress "setting the edge against the run."
But if it comes to a choice between run defense and pass rush, the player who creates the most pressure will win the day. Galette is that player after notching 22 sacks in the last two seasons.
Jones described how Galette's quickness gave Williams some rare problems. He credited Galette with possessing a "gear faster than Brian Orakpo had." The ex-New Orleans Saints starter also "easily blew" by Moses.
ESPN.com's John Keim detailed how speed and agility are the cornerstones of Galette's game: "The man springs out of his four-point stance, crouching and then exploding. He likes to go wide and can really dip low and turn the corner."
Those qualities can make the controversial Galette the appropriate bookend to Kerrigan. Washington's first-round pick in 2011 recorded a career-best 13.5 sacks a year ago and is a player offenses now have to scheme ways to contain.
On the inside, Keenan Robinson remains a budding star. His production should skyrocket with Knighton absorbing double teams in front of him.
But it's Perry Riley Jr. who needs to make the most of the better talent along the line. His 2014 campaign was certainly one to forget. Yet with so little key depth, the Redskins need Riley to bounce back in a major way.
CB: Chris Culliver, DeAngelo Hall
S: Dashon Goldson, Duke Ihenacho
At cornerback, things are almost as sketchy as the tight end depth chart. Bashaud Breeland, impressive as a rookie, is set to serve a one-game suspension. He's also nursing an injury.
So is veteran DeAngelo Hall. The 31-year-old left the team's most recent practice session after spraining his left toe, according to the Post's Jones.
It's a blow for Hall, who is expected to start ahead of Breeland this season. Yet this injury seems like another natural niggle for a player who ruptured the same Achilles twice last season.
Coming back from a long layoff and such a serious pair of injuries, means Hall is bound to take some scrapes this offseason. Jones also noted how the corner suffered a groin strain earlier at camp.
While the Redskins are uncertain about the severity of this current injury, I'm going to bet Hall is good to go for Week 1. So he'll start with new boy Chris Culliver.
The former San Francisco 49ers ball hawk needs to bring his opportunism and aggression to a pass defense that's been short of big plays for too long. Of course, that problem can also be remedied by better play from the safety positions.
Whether Duke Ihenacho and trade acquisition Dashon Goldson can provide improved performances is debatable. Both are big hitters but have had trouble matching up with vertical routes in space.
K: Kai Forbath
P: Tress Way
LS: Nick Sundberg
KR: Chris Thompson PR: Jamison Crowder
While the special teams units need work in coverage and the return game, the kicking chores are capably handled. Tress Way has proved himself a very competent punter. Meanwhile, Kai Forbath has his critics, but there's plenty of worse kickers around the NFL.
As for the return game, big plays have been scarce. Running back Chris Thompson can handle kickoffs, provided he stays healthy. Crowder could be every effective running back punts. He has plenty of experience in that area from his days at Duke.
Doing more to tip the field position battle in Griffin and company's favor will be a key factor this season.
Injuries have mounted during camp, but this starting lineup still looks stronger than last season's vintage. The defense offers genuine cause for excitement about a team attempting to leave the NFC East basement.
Success will ultimately be determined by how effectively the smashmouth-style offense keeps pace.