With all the talk about Robert Griffin III surrounding the Washington Redskins, most people seem to forget that he cannot carry this team alone. Washington has questions up and down the roster, and very few solidified starting spots. Mike Shanahan preaches competition to make players better, and the Redskins have no shortage of that. Here are five positions to keep an eye on during this year’s training camp and pre-season:
1. The Wide Receiver Situation
Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan were brought in because this group could not make the big plays last year. Now, with Leonard Hankerson coming back from a hip injury and Santana Moss coming in 15 pounds lighter and “possessed” as Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan said, things could get complicated with the starting rotation. Garcon was obviously paid to be the number one guy, but behind him it’s anyone’s guess. Moss will likely play the slot, but Hankerson showed much promise before his injury last year and Morgan was a consistent threat for the 49ers before his injury last year. Regardless of what the order on the depth chart is, this group looks to be arguably the strongest receiving group in the Dan Snyder era for Washington.
2. Who Stays Healthy at Running Back?
Six running backs missed the final day of OTAs with injury, leaving sixth round pick Alfred Morris to take all the snaps. Roy Helu and Evan Royster each had breakout seasons last year after Tim Hightower suffered a torn ACL, but Helu also went down with injury and many worry that he has durability concerns. In five games Royster was one of the most efficient backs in the league, averaging over six yards per carry, but the coaching staff is worried about how he can handle the load of an entire season. Mike Shanahan will likely use a rushing attack by committee, where all backs get a share of the load, but it’s unsure who will see those snaps and when. If Hightower can successfully come back from his knee injury, he could be an asset in the passing game for rookie Robert Griffin III with his protection skills. The only potential problem is if he has a setback in his injury or can’t return to his former self. Look for this competition to be wide open, with Helu probably starting as the lead back.
Former Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris has fit right in as defensive back coach in Washington. Already he’s implemented several different rotations and coverages in the scheme, including putting DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson in the slot position some plays. It’s no secret that Hall is a boom or bust player, often getting burnt when trying to make the big play. The coaching staff hopes that putting him on the slot receiver will help him make plays more easily on more underneath routes with safety help behind him. If Hall does move inside, that leaves a big hole on the outside of Washington’s secondary. Wilson will most likely take over the number one position, but on the opposite side of him there hasn’t been a clear-cut winner. Cedric Griffin, Kevin Barnes, Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield have all flashed in practice, but all have their own question marks. Griffin has been a journey-man most of his career, Barnes has disappointed after being drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft, Crawford was a seventh round pick in this year’s draft, and Minnifield went from a possible second round pick to undrafted free agent this year after having microfracture surgery. Most likely the spot will go to either Griffin or Barnes, but Crawford has been playing well against Garcon in practice and Minnifield has flashed the talent that made him one of the top prospects in this year’s draft before his surgery. This group will definitely hold some exciting competition in training camp, and could help bolster the Redskins’ weak secondary come September.
No discussion about the Redskins’ off-season would be complete without talking about the two safety spots on the roster, which appear to be the weakness of the team. LaRon Landry and Oshiomogho Atogwe are both gone after injury-riddled seasons last year, leaving both spots up for grabs. The team brought in Madieu Williams, who lost his starting spot at free safety in San Francisco to Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson, along with Brandon Merriweather and Tanard Jackson. Merriweather was issued a DUI within a week of his employment with the Redskins, but when he focuses on the game he has shown Pro Bowl ability. The biggest problem is that he rarely seems to do that. Tanard Jackson came from Tampa Bay mostly because of Raheem Morris, but has also had his fair share of troubles. So far, Williams and Merriweather have shown the most promise at the position, and will likely head into training camp as the starters. The two could be usurped on the roster by Jackson, Dejon Gomes, Reed Doughty or Jordan Bernstine, but at this point that doesn’t seem likely.
5. The Tight End Conundrum
Previously a position of strength on the roster, Fred Davis’s suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy and Chris Cooley’s knee injury have thrown a wrench into the Redskins’ tight end situation. Davis is by far the number one option, but he is one mistake away from being suspended an entire year by the league. Cooley has been a shell of his former self the past two seasons, with much time spent on injured reserve. It will be interesting to see if a full offseason can get him healthy and back to his usual tricks. One intriguing aspect of this competition is the transition of Niles Paul from receiver to tight end. Shanahan has raved about his rare combination of strength and sub 4.5 40 speed, and likened him to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, whom he coached in Denver. Paul showed his aggressiveness last year as a gunner on special teams, often recording highlight reel tackles in the punt return game. If he can translate his skills to the tight end position and develop as a blocker, he could be a huge threat down the road. Until then, Davis will start with Cooley behind him. But in this league anything can happen.
The Redskins have more holes on their roster than they can hope to fix with just a few off-seasons under Mike Shanahan. They’ve found their franchise quarterback, left tackle, pass rushers and front seven. The rest will have to be built from competition this season as Washington hopes to turn its fortunes around and be relevant once again in one of the toughest divisions in football.
By Brian Paxton