Coach Mike Shanahan enters the second year of his building project with a foundation in place but some significant lingering questions. Overshadowing the team’s two-win improvement in 2010 is the disastrous trade for quarterback Donovan McNabb. The ugly, prolonged divorce from McNabb leaves the Redskins with no proven option at the most important position on the field. Meanwhile, the offensive line remains a major weakness, and there’s a lack of proven skill-position players.
The defense in 2010 suffered in transitioning to a 3-4. The question now is whether it will improve after a year of learning and time to acquire personnel that fits the scheme.
Players insist that Shanahan’s structured, disciplined approach has changed the team’s losing, disorderly culture. However, fans, and possibly owner Daniel Snyder, will get antsy if there isn’t another step forward in the standings.
No head-to-head race captivates the nation’s capital like a Redskins’ quarterback controversy. The latest quarterback competition, which features Rex Grossman against John Beck, isn’t exactly a matchup of heavyweights, but anything would excite the masses. Grossman is a known quantity with 34 starts in his eight seasons. His decision-making is sometimes baffling (40 career INTs compared to 40 TDs), but he also has a firm grasp of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Beck, on the other hand, is a wild card. Since being drafted 40th overall in 2007, he has started only four games — all during his rookie season with a dreadful Miami team that finished 1–15. Now with his third club, Beck has a golden opportunity to apply all he’s learned on the sidelines. He’s smart and incredibly determined. He also has a stronger arm than Grossman and is better on the run. He, too, knows the offense after joining the Redskins in early August 2010.
Running back Ryan Torain was exceptional when healthy last season. He has the vision, patience and ability to break tackles needed to succeed in Mike Shanahan’s one-cut running game. Torain has an extensive injury history, which means former Cardinal Tim Hightower or a pair of rookies — Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster — will have an opportunity to play a prominent role.
The wide receiver position got an unexpected boost shortly after the lockout ended when the Redskins re-signed free agent Santana Moss to a three-year deal. Moss caught a career-high 93 passes last season for 1,115 yards. A few days after signing Moss, Washington acquired Jabar Gaffney in a trade with Denver. Gaffney caught a career-high 65 passes with the Broncos last season. Anthony Armstrong’s Cinderella story is as incredible as any, and he was among the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL last season.
Veteran tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis are also weapons in the passing game.
The offensive line presents plenty of questions after Shanahan drafted only one lineman, in the seventh round. Left tackle Trent Williams was overmatched at times during his rookie season by some of the elite pass-rushers in the NFC East. Neither Will Montgomery nor Artis Hicks proved to be reliable options at right guard, as both were pushed back too frequently. The Redskins, however, did shore up the left tackle spot by re-signing Jammal Brown.
The Redskins were a perennial top-10 defense before last year’s switch to a 3-4 alignment resulted in a No. 31 ranking. Shanahan decided before returning to the NFL that the 3-4 would be his scheme, and he was willing to accept the growing pains with a Redskins roster that lacked the skills to run it effectively. He began his second year in charge by drafting Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan 16th overall to address a crippling pass-rush imbalance. Kerrigan is expected to improve the rush from the left outside linebacker spot opposite Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo. Kerrigan has a strong motor and exceptional hands. However, he rarely dropped into coverage at Purdue, so his transition from defensive end will take some time. Veteran inside linebacker London Fletcher is still a tackling machine, but the Redskins’ three-man line must exploit that asset by more consistently occupying blockers up front.
The line was upgraded in free agency with the acquisitions of Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen. Cofield, a tackle in the Giants’ 4-3 front in recent years, will be plugged in as the starting nose in Washington. Bowen started nine games at end for the Cowboys last season. Second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins is quick and powerful, two attributes that should earn him plenty of playing time. Shanahan plans to play him at the 5-technique (defensive end).
After moving from free to strong safety last season, LaRon Landry was playing at an All-Pro level before missing the last seven games with an Achilles’ tendon injury. He took better angles playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and his speed was an asset while blitzing. The Redskins need him at full strength. Free safety O.J. Atogwe, a free agent signing just before the lockout, should be a major upgrade over Kareem Moore in coverage and against the run.
Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall frequently gambles to make big plays. Sometimes it works — he picked off four passes against Chicago last year — and other times he gets burned. Josh Wilson, who spent last season in Baltimore, will start opposite Hall. He can be matched up with quicker wide receivers. Former third-round pick Kevin Barnes, a two-year veteran, is the No. 3 corner.
If the Redskins could ever find stability with their specialists, it would add years to special teams coach Danny Smith’s life. Four different players punted for the Redskins last season, and none was a long-term answer. Veterans Josh Bidwell, Hunter Smith and Sam Paulescu all had their chances. Smith didn’t like any of the options in the draft, so the Redskins signed Sav Rocca, who spent the past four years in Philadelphia, as a free agent. Washington’s placekicking saga also continues. In his first full NFL season, Graham Gano missed 11 field goals, tied for an NFL high. Gano has sufficient leg strength but must prove his mental toughness. He’ll enter a training camp position battle with little margin for error.
Diminutive return specialist Brandon Banks emerged last season as one of the Redskins’ most electrifying playmakers. He must overcome last year’s meniscus tear and avoid off-the-field trouble (he was stabbed outside a D.C. nightclub in February).
Shanahan’s second season was always going to be another building year, because the team he inherited was too old with too many holes. This season is about continuing to bring the right players into the scheme and seeing if Beck is a playoff-caliber quarterback. The Redskins should be competitive almost every week, but they need another year before they contend.
Outside the Huddle
Follow the stars
John Beck surrounded himself with two quality mentors in his quest to earn a starting quarterback job — Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. In the 2009 offseason, Beck bought a home in San Diego so he could train with them. Like Beck, Brees was drafted in the second round and didn’t pan out with the team that drafted him. “I said, ‘Here’s a guy that has had a lot of similarities to me and reached the pinnacle,’” Beck says. “I want to learn everything that he has done.”
Three’s a crowd
Receiver Anthony Armstrong’s climb to the NFL from the Intense Football League is one of those stories you can’t make up. Even after becoming one of the NFL’s biggest deep threats last season — he averaged 19.8 yards per catch — Armstrong squirmed when the Redskins drafted three receivers. “When they drafted one, I expected that,” Armstrong says. “When they drafted three, I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I was mad.”
Washington’s new ace
Ryan Kerrigan had a heck of a three-week span this offseason. Not long after the Redskins drafted the Purdue end/linebacker 16th overall, he aced the 150-yard, par-3 seventh hole at The Players Club at Woodland Trails in Indiana. Kerrigan describes himself as an average golfer.
Know what’s good for you Quarterback Rex Grossman attended all eight of the Redskins’ players-only workouts in the offseason despite having an expired contract. The eight-year veteran knows that Washington provides his best chance to start, and coaches encouraged him before the lockout to keep training with Redskins players.
Blame the booze
Veteran tight end Fred Davis got down to 245 pounds this offseason from his playing weight of 258 last year. His methods included reducing alcohol consumption. “I started working out and started seeing I was getting slimmer,” he says. “I was eating differently and it felt good. I felt like I could run all day and not get tired, and I’m quicker.”
The Redskins began the third day of April’s draft by selecting three consecutive players from the University of Nebraska — running back Roy Helu Jr., safety DeJon Gomes and receiver Niles Paul. Afterward, coach Mike Shanahan was asked if Shemy Schembechler, son of legendary college coach Bo and the Redskins’ area scout responsible for Nebraska, would get a bonus. “He wants a car, yeah,” Shanahan cracked.
Hall in the family
Free safety O.J. Atogwe, who signed a five-year, $26 million free agent contract with the Redskins just before the lockout began, got married in May. His new father-in-law could teach him a thing or two. Atogwe married Jill Singletary, the daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker and former San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary.
Something to prove
Return man Brandon Banks suffered a collapsed lung when he was stabbed outside a D.C. nightclub in February. He and his agent have dismissed suggestions that he was involved in starting the incident. Rightly or wrongly, though, Banks begins his second NFL season facing questions about whether the stabbing was symptomatic of a deeper problem.
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