Position-by-Position Breakdown of Washington Redskins' Top Combine Targets
The Washington Redskins don't need to follow a magic formula at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. In fact, general manager Scot McCloughan simply needs to adhere to one of the oldest maxims in football: Good teams are built from the trenches first.
Specifically, strong defenses are built on solidity in the trenches. The Redskins need a defense stingy enough to supplement an offense prolific enough to put up points on anybody.
It means McCloughan and head coach Jay Gruden should take a long look at every available D-lineman on display at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis during the next week. Prospects should be targeted at both end and nose tackle.
McCloughin knows the value of fortifying the lines. He rightly made fixing a feeble offensive front a priority when he used his first pick with the Redskins to select would-be Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff fifth-overall in the 2015 NFL draft.
Yet, as important as beefing up the defensive front is this offseason, Washington can't ignore its other needs. In particular, the Redskins need a center, an intelligent and versatile running back, a wide receiver or two and a thumper at inside linebacker.
Read on for full list of the combine targets who could answer Washington's problems at key positions.
1. Defensive End
Greg Manusky won't improve the defense much beyond where previous coordinator Joe Barry had it unless the team invests in its D-line. It will mean finding blue-chip prospects at end instead of struggling through with veteran retreads such as Cullen Jenkins and Ricky Jean Francois.
Jenkins is a free agent, as are Chris Baker, Ziggy Hood and Kedric Golston. Numbers alone dictate the Redskins have to make this position a priority during the offseason.
Campbell may come in, but here are the combine prospects who could join him:
Malik McDowell, Michigan State
Malik McDowell is an interesting prospect for the Redskins, one offering crossover potential at both a position and scheme level. The tale of the tape says this 6'6", 276-pounder is a double-team magnet as a five-technique end but quick enough to win off the edge and generate pressure.
It may be a lofty comparison, but McDowell could flip-flop between edge-rusher and down lineman the way Jadeveon Clowney has done for the Houston Texans. If not, Manusky and the Redskins could focus on developing this raw talent into either a full-time end or make him an outside pass-rusher, the way the team did with second-round pick Preston Smith in 2015.
Jarron Jones, Notre Dame
Jarron Jones looks as though he's been engineered purely to play 3-4 end in the pros. He's got the prototypical size and playing temperament for the position.
During his time with the Irish, Jones thrived tying up blockers and creating attack lanes for others to make the plays. Jones also has the arm length and upper body bulk to lock down one edge of Washington's three-man line.
However, the interview process at the combine could be crucial in assessing a player blighted by a "history of injuries and concerns over his football character," according to Lance Zierlein of the league's official site.
Carlos Watkins, Clemson
Carlos Watkins is a dynamic down lineman who could be the obvious rush threat every 3-4 base scheme needs along the front. Indeed, flexibility is the key to Watkins' game, after he lined up at multiple spots for Clemson, a prolific production line of NFL-ready defensive linemen.
His best fit might be as an under-tackle in the type of 1-gap system Manusky ran for the Indianapolis Colts. Watkins would cause havoc in the guard-tackle B-gap in tandem with a dominant edge-rusher.
Chris Wormley, Michigan
You can take one look at some players and think 3-4 end. Michigan's Chris Wormley is one such linemen. In fact, the 6'5", 297-pounder compares to Jared Crick, who has played the position for both the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, per Zierlein.
Wormley is not a walking highlight reel, but he's the type of no-frills lineman every linebacker-led scheme needs. Wormley won't wreck many plays, but the Redskins could count on him quietly going about the ugly but essential work of occupying blockers and clogging inside running lanes.
Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
Size is something Manusky appeared to value during his time in Indianapolis, where house-sized monsters Josh Chapman and Zach Kerr featured up front. The same principle should make UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes a target at the combine.
He tips the scales at a gaudy 321 pounds and "had a quality week at the Senior Bowl," according to Charlie Campbell of Walter Football. A team as soft defending the run as the Redskins have been during the last two years has to consider every able-bodied behemoth.
2. Nose Tackle
It's been seven years since the Redskins decided to switch to a 3-4 defense, and the team still hasn't found the right player at the scheme's most important position. This just has to be the year Washington acquires a nose tackle good enough to anchor the front and bolster a too-generous run defense.
Elijah Qualls, Washington
Elijah Qualls is among the most natural nose guards set to feature at the combine. What scouts should see is the obvious mass to fill the middle and act as a magnet for double teams.
Just as important as his 321 pounds, Qualls has the dream low centre of gravity all true nose tackles need. At 6'1", he has the leverage to get underneath blockers and create the push centrally the principles of the 3-4 rely on.
Putting Qualls over the ball with a free agent like Campbell next to him, would immediately transform a below-par line into a position of strength and a nightmare for blocking schemes.
Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama
Any linemen who has played over the ball for Nick Saban at Alabama is sure to be adept in all the fundamentals of playing 0-technique. So Dalvin Tomlinson should surely catch the eye of McCloughan and Co. at the combine.
The former Crimson Tide nose guard is a typical run-stuffer, who has already made a good start to the offseason process, according to Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: "Tomlinson had a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl and wowed teams in the interview sessions."
Tomlinson would be a sneaky good pick for the Redskins in this year's draft.
D.J. Jones, Mississippi State
Standing 6'0" and weighing 321 pounds, D.J. Jones boasts the look of a classic nose tackle. The former Mississippi State standout also combines impressive agility and move skills with his ample frame.
Those are the things 3-4 teams need from the man over the middle. Jones' intimidating power would make him a focal point for blockers and, therefore, the player sure to create favorable matchups for the other member of Washington's front seven.
In other words, Jones would be the throwback nose tackle the Redskins haven't had since Gruden's predecessor Mike Shanahan switched defenses in 2010.
Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, USC
If the Redskins can look past his age, and they certainly should, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu would make perfect sense as a prospect to target over draft weekend. The USC nose tackle may be 25, but he's got all the attributes a defense should want over the ball.
Specifically, he's a monster in the middle at 6'1" and 350 pounds. The player also has NFL nose tackle in his lineage, as the nephew of former New York Jets 0-technique Sione Pouha, per Zierlein of the league's official website.
Zierlein also compared Tu'ikolovatu to Baltimore Ravens linchpin Brandon Williams, perhaps the most dominant nose guard in the AFC. Manusky and the Redskins should be targeting similar size and aggression to play in the middle in 2017.
Caleb Brantley, Florida
Caleb Brantley plays with the hustle all interior disruptors need to win consistently in the trenches. He brings a good mix of agility, resilience and quickness to the field.
Brantley also plays bigger than his 6'2" and 314-pound frame, according to Nicholas Tolisano of the Redskins' official site: "He is a tad undersized for an interior lineman but can take on double teams and is rarely knocked to the ground."
Drafting Brantley would ensure Washington has a dependable, high-motor player anchoring the base defense. He would also be capable of staying on the field for third downs, giving Brantley the edge over many of the other prospects listed here.
3. Running Back
Matt Jones' fumbling issues and the lack of explosion possessed by Robert Kelley should put running back high on the list of needs for the Redskins this offseason. Fortunately, the draft is loaded with exciting prospects, many of whom Washington will get to asses in Indy.
Here are the five most likely to catch the eye:
De'Veon Smith, Michigan
If big plays are the order of the day, Gruden should urge Washington's decision-makers to use a draft pick to bring De'Veon Smith to Redskins Park. Smith has an enticing blend of size and subtle quickness packed into a 5-10", 220-pound frame.
His final year with the Wolverines saw Smith average 4.7 yards per carry before winning a lot of admirers at both the East-West Shrine Game, as well as at the Senior Bowl, per Charlie Campbell of Walter Football.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Kareem Hunt is something of a boom-or-bust back but one who possesses the speed Washington has lacked at the position for too long. In fact, Hunt can be a game-breaker at his best, thanks to a flair for ripping off big gains.
His field-stretching quicks and shifty moves are reminiscent of former Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler Robert Smith. Like Smith, soft hands and a good awareness of passing concepts also recommend Hunt.
Considering Chris Thompson is a restricted free agent, the Redskins would be wise to use the combine to identify a back with the versatility to stay on the field for football's money down.
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
If a versatile runner and receiver-type is needed, then Boise State's Jeremy McNichols should be on Washington's radar at the RCA Dome. He has been well-schooled at a Boise State program that sent Doug Martin to the big league in recent years.
Like Martin, McNichols is a varied, imaginative and tough runner. He can work between the tackles or bounce plays to the edge.
Where he is at his most effective is on cutback plays. The ability to make a quick cut-and-go has been the staple talent the Redskins have coveted on the ground since Shanahan installed his famed zone scheme in 2010.
There are still elements of the Shanahan blueprint in Gruden's offense, so McNichols would make a lot of sense as a draft pick to replace Jones.
Marlon Mack, South Florida
There just hasn't been enough speed coming out of the backfield for the Redskins lately. Fortunately, taking a chance on Marlon Mack would solve the problem.
Mack made the big play his signature at South Florida, where he averaged 6.82 yards a carry in 2016, per cfbstats.com. Add in legitimate big-play potential as a returner, along with some useful chops catching passes, and there's a lot to recommend Mack eventually moving to Washington.
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Adding a new running back doesn't necessarily have to mean targeting a classic bell-cow back at the combine. The Redskins can also be wowed by a Darren Sproles-clone like San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey.
His diminutive 5'8" and 169-pound dimensions may worry some about his ability to absorb punishment at the pro level. Yet the issue hasn't prevented Sproles, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen from being productive NFL backs.
Like those players, Pumphrey makes things happen whenever and however he gets his hands on the rock.
4. Wide Receiver
Wide receiver is an obvious position of need as long as incumbents Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson remain free agents. Even if the Redskins lose both players, they have playmakers in the passing game, such as slot receiver Jamison Crowder and "joker" tight end Jordan Reed.
However, big-play threats on the outside would be in short supply if Jackson and Garcon left town. McCloughan tried to anticipate the problem in 2016 when he drafted Josh Doctosn in the first round.
However, the former TCU pass-catcher is still battling the injury woes that wrecked his rookie season, per Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post.
Juju Smith-Schuster, USC
In terms of both build and playing style, Juju Smith-Schuster just looks the way an NFL wide receiver should. He is swift out of his break and runs precise routes.
Just as important, the USC wideout is a natural hands catcher who plucks the ball in. He knows how to get open and make a quarterback's job easier.
In this sense, Smith-Schuster would be a natural replacement for Garcon and a seamless fit for the type of high-percentage passing game quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrived on in the past two years.
Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
Smith-Schuster might help Washington forget about Garcon, but the franchise may still need to replace Jackson's ability to burn defenses deep. Enter Virginia Tech's Isaiah Ford, a combine prospect with the vertical potential to be the deep threat every complete passing game needs.
Ford averaged 13.85 yard a reception in 2016, per cfbstats.com. If Jackson doesn't come back and Doctson still can't deliver the big plays in Year 2, Cousins and the Redskins will need a wideout like Ford to stretch coverage and open up the underneath passing lanes, for Reed, Crowder and Co.
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina
The Redskins need only look at Super Bowl LI winners the New England Patriots to see the value of short and shifty catch machines who can win consistently underneath. The Pats use Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to escape coverage from the slot and give Tom Brady quick throws and a ton of yards after the catch.
North Carolina's Ryan Switzer would offer the same value to Cousins and Washington's offense. He's only 5'9" and 179 pounds, but Switzer knows how to get open and get open quickly.
For a comparison closer to home, consider how much easier Cole Beasley made rookie quarterback Dak Prescott's job with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.
Drew Morgan, Arkansas
Like Switzer, Drew Morgan is a catch machine whose sure hands and deft route-running skills more than compensate for a lack of elite pro size.
The 6'0", 193-pounder caught 65 passes in 2016. Morgan usually wins against coverage, because he's got sneaky speed out of his breaks.
It's the core attribute for receivers who create quick throws regularly for their offense.
Corey Davis, Western Michigan
Not many receivers are as comfortable with the demands of a West Coast-style passing attack as Corey Davis. The former Western Michigan star is never better than when winning over the middle to snatch a slant pass and turn it into a huge gain with his after-the-catch skills.
Chief among those skills is the play speed that always seems to catch opponents by surprise. Get the ball in Davis' hands and he's sure to turn a medium-range throw into a monster gain.
The same dynamic has made Cousins a quality quarterback. It's also at the heart of the offense Gruden likes to call.
5. Inside Linebacker
As much as Washington's defense lacks elite talent along the front, more marquee ability is also needed at inside linebacker. Will Compton is an honest type, while Mason Foster has veteran savvy, but neither makes enough of the splash plays inside 'backers need to make in today's game.
Reuben Foster, Alabama
Reuben Foster would be the dream first-round pick for the Redskins in this year's draft. The Burgundy and Gold would be getting a bruising, attack-minded linebacker most comfortable playing downhill.
Yet Foster would also bring keen intelligence and invaluable versatility to Redskins Park. He's more than useful on the blitz, steady in coverage and can even line up on the outside.
In many ways, Foster resembles another former Alabama middle linebacker, Dont'a Hightower. The New England Patriots linchpin should be a top target for Washington during 2017 NFL free agency, but drafting Foster would be more than adequate consolation if Hightower can't be signed.
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan isn't as flexible as Foster, but in terms of aggression and intimidation, he'll find few equals at the combine. McMillan is a natural-born force in the middle, a hitter who can set a tone for a front seven.
Washington have lacked this kind of nastiness in the middle for too long. If McMillan shows up big in Indy, McCloughan should keep him in mind as a worthy enforcer to add on draft day.
Jarrad Davis, Florida
Maybe Foster will be out of reach with the 17th overall pick, so the Redskins should spend a long time running the rule over Florida's Jarrad Davis at the combine.
The ex-Gators thumper has the lateral quickness to seek and destroy sideline to sideline. He also boasts excellent potential as a weapon in blitz packages.
Similar to Foster, Davis can also operate on the edge if needed, making him a natural fit for creative sub-package designs.
Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
The classic 3-4 inside linebacker needs to be strong enough to work in the bubble and take on and beat guards in the running game. Fortunately, Zach Cunningham offers this core skill, according to Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: "He is a phenomenal run defender with excellent instincts. Cunningham is strong to take on offensive linemen, shed blocks, and then make tackles."
If Cunningham can wow during the strength drills in Indianapolis, the Redskins have to consider him as an obvious fix for a perennially leaky run defense. Putting Cunningham behind some new behemoths in the trenches would remedy the biggest weakness on this team the last two years.
Kendell Beckwith, LSU
Kendell Beckwith is one more thumper with versatility the Redskins must watch closely in Indy. It's easy to love the comparison NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein made between Beckwith and Houston Texans ace Benardrick McKinney.
In other words, Beckwith is a big-bodied blitzer who can be moved around to target weak blockers and wreck plays at their source. Beckwith needs to prove his footwork is up to scratch at the combine, but if he does, he could land on Washington's big board as a sleeper pick sure to earn McCloughan some much-needed plaudits.
Kory Lichtensteiger has retired, and John Sullivan is a free agent. Even without that context, center would be a position the Redskins need to upgrade this offseason.
Washington's O-line is stout everywhere except in the middle, so team officials should use the combine to carefully study the top prospects from a draft class surprisingly loaded at the position.
Ethan Pocic, LSU
There may not be a more skilled and flexible pivot man in attendance at the RCA Dome than LSU's Ethan Pocic. He has played everywhere along the front during his collegiate days but does his best work over the ball.
Pocic is smart and technically sound but also flashes the ferocity to be a mauler when the situation requires. However, it's his suave hands usage that should appeal to Washington's line coach Bill Callahan, who could quickly turn this player into a pro-level star.
Pat Elflein, Ohio State
If Pocic is the best center in the draft, Ohio State's Pat Elflein is a close second. In fact, Sports Illustrated believes both players are "up there with the center prospects we’ve seen in recent drafts: (Ryan) Kelly, Travis Frederick and so on."
Callahan worked with Frederick with the Dallas Cowboys, helping turn him into a Pro Bowler. He would likely quickly become enamored with Elflein's powerful frame and consistency on the field.
J.J. Dielman, Utah
J.J. Dielman has to use the combine to prove to interested teams he is healthy enough to make an instant impact in 2017. The Redskins are one team who should be encouraged if Dielman proves he is over the foot problems that blighted him at Utah.
He's big for a center at 6'5" and 300 pounds but plays low and keep his hands close in the manner of most interior linemen. What Dielman does best is create movement in the running game, the main reason Washington should be interested.
Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia
Tyler Orlosky doesn't have overwhelming size, but what he lacks in mass and power, he makes up for with the recognition and move skills all solid centers need. Speed of thought and equally quick feet are the hallmarks of Orlosky's game.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler detailed how well the West Virginia anchorman reacts to different challenges in pass protection: "Alert, intelligent decision-maker and scans quickly to deciphers movements. Balanced steps to attain angles vs. gap penetrators and open run lanes."
If there's a worry, it's that Orlosky may find himself overpowered by some of the burly nose tackles in the NFC East. In particular, Damon Harrison of the New York Giants could toy with the 292-pounder.
Jon Toth, Kentucky
After a steady display at the Senior Bowl, there are good reasons for Washington to keep tabs on Jon Toth during the combine. For one thing, the ex-Kentucky pivot has the functional strength a line built on size may need in the middle.
Toth is also well-versed in the basics and fundamentals of hands usage and foot movement. In other words, he would be ideally suited to respond quickly to Callahan's teaching.
A smart coach working with a natural technician usually leads to instant success in the pros.
Washington's team-builders must come away from this year's combine having identified the right prospects to provide immediate help at these most pressing positions of need.