2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Eric Edholm
So many things went wrong in Mike Shanahan's first season with the Redskins that the natives started to wonder if he had lost the coaching touch that made him a two-time champion in Denver, not to mention the ring he won as an assistant in San Francisco.
First, there was the Albert Haynesworth debacle that stretched from the failed conditioning test well into the season. Then there was the Donovan McNabb benching and the whole mess that followed. Clearly, the way Shanahan and his staff handled those messes did not represent his or their finest hours.
Now both of those players are gone, and the Redskins spent the offseason overhauling a large portion of their roster through the draft, trades and free agency.
But you have you think that the quarterbacks hold the key to the team's season. It appeared all through the lockout that John Beck, despite not playing last season and last throwing a regular-season pass two teams ago when he was a rookie with the Dolphins in 2007, would be the starter.
But Beck was slowed in training camp with a groin injury, opening the door for Rex Grossman — who replaced McNabb last season — to vie for the starting job. It's far from a solidified position, and both quarterbacks may get their chance to impress Shanahan.
There are certainly those doubters who believe the coach simply did not like the available options this year and is waiting for the 2012 draft to select his eventual franchise quarterback.
Perhaps. Many believe the improvements at receiver and on defense might make this team something other than awful.
Mike Shanahan wants to bring as many elements of his zone-running, bootleg-and-play-action offense from Denver to D.C., but last season he was missing too many parts. Almost every unit is deficient in some respect; only tight end truly can be called a defined strength. As the offensive line jells, the run game evolves, the receivers emerge as threats and, naturally, as the QB play comes together, the offense will have many challenges before it can become a top-10 unit.
Quarterbacks: John Beck was regarded as a heady, mature gamer with a so-so arm and good leadership skills coming out of Brigham Young, but his disastrous rookie season in 2007 pretty much banished him from NFL action for the next few years. He joined the Redskins last August, and Mike Shanahan would go out of his way to mention Beck's work on the practice field — he just never found time to play him. Beck's intangibles have not diminished, and though he doesn't have the strongest arm and hasn't always been great against the blitz, he does possess nice touch on his passes. Beck might get his chance to start, but a groin injury in camp this year gave a chance for Rex Grossman to impress. Grossman was competitive in the games he started last season, although, like the rest of his NFL career, he also was wildly inconsistent. He has small hands and has tended to fold under pressure, but Grossman has shown he can pick apart defenses when he has time to throw. Shanahan has said he will wait until just before Week One to name a starter. Former Jets QB Kellen Clemens is the favorite to be the No. 3. Like Beck, his intangibles outweigh his physical skills.
Running backs: The position is in a state of flux, even with Ryan Torain's eye-opening flourishes last season. Tim Hightower could steal the job, but don't count out rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster, either. Hightower was a good short-yardage and goal-line back in Arizona (23 rushing TDs in 48 games), but the coaches believe he can handle a bigger load if he can kick a bad fumbling problem (eight lost in the past two seasons). All signs point toward Hightower, who also has stood out in blitz pickup, getting the first crack at starting. Torain has power, vision and good feet, and he fits well in this inside-outside zone scheme. However, he is inconsistent, injury-prone and not a true home-run threat. Helu was very hot-and-cold in college, but many believe he's a perfect stretch, one-cut runner. He has good feet but must prove he can show up week in and week out. Royster has burst but gets the yards the plays are blocked for. Keiland Williams started to pass-block better and caught an impressive 39 passes, but he has a limited skill set. Darrel Young could get most of the FB reps, with Mike Sellers, 36, moving to tight end and fighting for a roster spot.
Receivers: Santana Moss had a tremendous 2010 season, catching a career-high 93 passes and being the one truly consistent pass-catching threat. He made plays despite the poor passing game and, more importantly, stayed healthy. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moved Moss to the slot, where scouts have said for years he would be best, and the results paid off in spades. There will be a battle for the remaining WR reps between Anthony Armstrong, Jabar Gaffney, Leonard Hankerson, Donté Stallworth, Niles Paul and Malcolm Kelly. The Redskins unearthed Armstrong, who proved to be a nice deep threat. His route tree was limited to a lot of post, corner and fly routes, but he showed very good hands. Gaffney is a dependable short-and-intermediate receiver who always seemed to make clutch catches in Denver and New England. Hankerson is the most impressive rookie, and he figures to work his way into the mix as a confident playmaker in time. Kelly might be down to his final chance, and Paul might have to wait a year. Smallish second-year WRs Terrence Austin and Brandon Banks might have to make the team via special teams. TE Chris Cooley has become less of a red-zone factor than earlier in his career, but he has been valuable outside the 20. There were some drops in '10, but Cooley, like almost everyone, was affected by the QB turbulence. Cooley's left knee has been a chronic problem to the point where the swelling could keep him out of action, but he insists he'll be out there for the season opener. Fred Davis was expected to contribute more, but he had only a few explosive receptions. He's still a mess as a blocker much of the time. Logan Paulsen is a serviceable third blocking tight end.
Offensive linemen: OLT Trent Williams was thrown into the mix and was a mixed bag. His first handful of starts were a baptism by fire against some of the league's better pass rushers, and Williams held his own despite being beaten a few times. But later in the season, health and conditioning were issues. He has excellent lateral quickness for a big man and can get out into space and maul people. The interior three will be an area to watch. Kory Lichtensteiger is quick, smart and technically sound at left guard but hardly overpowering. Will Montgomery is the new starting center, moving over from right guard. He also is not dominant, although he appears to be a good positional blocker with a decent first step. Chris Chester, who also can play center, is the starter at right guard. He has a good initial punch and can anchor in the run game. ORT Jammal Brown had a rough first season in D.C., struggling — mightily, at times — to come back from a hip injury. Another year of rehab could allow him to play at the talent level he showed in New Orleans, and Mike Shanahan said he liked what he saw by season's end. If either tackle falters, sturdy ex-Seahawk Sean Locklear (78 starts in seven seasons) could step in. Artis Hicks and Clint Oldenburg are versatile but undertalented journeymen. Young reserves Erik Cook, Selvish Capers and rookie Maurice Hurt are projects.
Coordinator Jim Haslett wants to make the Redskins the Steelers of the East Coast. They have swapped out much of the 4-3 personnel of the previous regime and implemented the players to fit the 3-4 scheme. There are some terrific talents at all three levels of the defense, but depth still might be an issue. Haslett wants to develop this group into a slanting, pressure-based odd front that forces quarterbacks into making mistakes. The secondary is talented enough to make plays and compensate, but the development of the pass rush will be crucial.
Defensive linemen: DLE Adam Carriker was a nice fit in the 3-4 after being miscast in the Rams' 4-3 "D." Carriker is a sturdy, high-motor player who can tie up two gaps and lock horns with tackles and tight ends. But he's not a playmaker and has no real pass-rush ability. The Redskins are hoping that NT Barry Cofield and DRE Stephen Bowen provide more of that rush. Cofield will be on the nose, but he won't two-gap as much as other 3-4 nose men. Expect the staff to line him up in the gaps and ask him to slant, get to the quarterback and disrupt the run. Bowen was a part-time player in Dallas, but he flashed some potential. We'll see how he holds up against the run, which will be a big test. Anthony Bryant and Kedric Golston make up the primary reserves after rookie DE Jarvis Jenkins torn an ACL in the preseason. Bryant and Golston could play a role if Jim Haslett uses a deeper rotation up front. DEs Vonnie Holliday, Phillip Daniels and Jeremy Jarmon are gone, so youngsters such as Rob Jackson and Chris Neild could get a shot.
Linebackers: ROLB Brian Orakpo didn't finish strong, but he has the edge speed and pass-rush countermoves to be a future star, especially if rookie LOLB Ryan Kerrigan proves to be a quick study on the other side. Orakpo often saw protections slide his way, and the extra attention appeared to wear on him in Year Two. Kerrigan has boundless energy and is a willing learner, making the transition from college defensive end. Although he's not a creative pass rusher, there's little denying his production at Purdue in terms of sacks and forced fumbles and always being around the football. ILB London Fletcher saw little or no drop-off in his play, despite scouts saying he wouldn't be a great fit in the 3-4 defense. Fletcher might get hung up in the trash a bit, but he's a heady leader with a nose for the ball, still a hard hitter at age 36 and the unquestioned leader of the defense. Rocky McIntosh could battle at the other ILB spot with Perry Riley, who can bring the wood inside but isn't a gifted athlete. McIntosh often appeared slow to diagnose and attack ballcarriers. Lorenzo Alexander is a very versatile, self-made performer who lines up outside. If Kerrigan struggles, expect Alexander to step in. OLB Rob Jackson might be an occasional pass-rush threat. Reserve ILBs H.B. Blades and Keyaron Fox also could end up fighting for one spot, although both have been key special-teamers.
Defensive backs: The Redskins are counting on LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe to be one of the better playmaking safety pairs in the NFL, the kind of arrangement the team thought it would have for years with Landry and the late Sean Taylor. Both have a nose for the ball — Landry more so in the run game, Atogwe more in coverage — and could help make up for shortcomings elsewhere. In nine games, Landry was the team's defensive MVP, harnessing his emotions and finding a home playing near the box. Landry isn't at his best covering in the deep halves, but Atogwe has the range to patrol center field, which should free things up. One of the better turnover-forcing safeties in the game the past several years, Atogwe should have a great season, with Jim Haslett knowing how to use the player he previously coached in St. Louis. LCB DeAngelo Hall made the Pro Bowl largely because of his four-INT game at Chicago, but he was up and down. He had zero interceptions in the second half of the season and often was victimized on double moves orchestrated by smart offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. With improved safety play, Hall most certainly will stick to his gambling style, going for interceptions. RCB Josh Wilson might be small (5-foot-9), but he showed late last season with the Ravens that he is competitive and can run with receivers. He also should be a better playmaker than the departed Carlos Rogers, who had poor hands. Nickel CB Phillip Buchanon had a nice season and filled in for Rogers down the stretch, but he is facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Kevin Barnes could step up in his place. He played safety late in the season out of necessity but would need to add 10-15 pounds to play there. S Kareem Moore missed a lot of tackles as a starter but is worth keeping around as an inexpensive reserve. Reed Doughty and Chris Horton could battle for another reserve spot, with special teams being their calling card.
PK Graham Gano had a wild season, with three game-winning kicks but also five FG misses inside 40 yards. Still, he fought off Shayne Graham this year and showed more consistency in camp. For the second consecutive season, the team went through an amazing four punters — and it has yet another new one, strong-legged ex-Eagle Sav Rocca. The coverage and return units — led by Lorenzo Alexander, Reed Doughty and Keyaron Fox — appear to be in good shape. RS Brandon Banks has natural explosion and vision and is hard to bring down. He could end up being the primary returner on both punts and kickoffs again.
Anyone doubting Mike Shanahan's ability to coach, NFL insiders say, is misguided. Sure, his first-season struggles in D.C. were unusual given his track record, and it would be unrealistic to expect a massive improvement this season even with the additions through the draft, trades and free agency. This team could make strides on defense and give its fellow NFC East clubs a better run for their money, but so much depends on a very unsettled QB situation. If Rex Grossman or John Beck can't handle the pressure and show improvement, the Redskins will remain a bottom-rung team.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.