Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Washington Redskins check in at No. 22.
Mike Shanahan believes he identified the Redskins’ biggest problem, and he tried to solve it by trading three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to select Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III out of Baylor. Shanahan finally has at his disposal an electrifying playmaker who dazzled at the collegiate level. Not only should Griffin inject life into an offense that ranked 20th in the NFL in yards per play (5.2) last season, but he also buys Shanahan some time following consecutive last-place finishes.
It might not come to that, though. The Redskins return everyone in the defensive front seven, which was their biggest strength in 2011. Washington also upgraded a punchless receiving corps in free agency. Considering that they lost six games by only one possession last season, don’t be surprised if the Redskins compete for a playoff spot.
Shanahan normally restrains himself when praising players, but he was giddy when discussing Griffin following rookie minicamp in May. He believes Griffin’s combination of speed and arm strength will allow him to challenge defenses on the perimeter in unprecedented ways. Shanahan will trim the playbook this season and tailor it to ease Griffin into the NFL, but expect plenty of the misdirection and play-action that have been characteristic of Shanahan’s offenses over the years. The biggest questions surrounding Griffin involve his ability to master footwork and read defenses. His work ethic is as strong as it gets, though, so he’ll exert whatever effort it takes to fix any shortcomings. Consider that incumbent starter Rex Grossman turned the ball over 25 times in 13 starts last season. It shouldn’t be difficult for Griffin to improve in that category.
Griffin can’t do it alone, of course. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, want the running game to be the offense’s driving force. Tim Hightower is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, but he’s the best-suited running back for the outside zone scheme. His speed, vision, blocking skills and ability to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and burst up field give him an edge over Roy Helu, who capably filled in after Hightower was hurt last Oct. 23. Expect both to contribute significantly.
Washington’s offensive line, however, is not a strength, even though last season’s entire first string returns. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger tore multiple right knee ligaments last Oct. 16. That could reduce the speed that makes him so valuable. Right tackle Jammal Brown, 31, resorted to yoga in the offseason to improve the range of motion in his left hip that was surgically repaired three years ago.
Griffin has some pass-catching weapons at his disposal. Coaches last season lamented a dearth of playmakers, so they signed free agent receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Garcon’s speed provides the Redskins a deep threat and a player who can gain yards after the catch. Morgan will do a bit of everything, including play the slot in three-receiver sets. Second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson is coming off surgery to repair the labrum in his right hip, but coaches love his speed and how he uses his 6'2", 209-pound frame. Tight end Fred Davis is back following a four-game drug suspension that cost him the team lead in receptions.
Shanahan wanted a formidable defense in place when he drafted his franchise quarterback, and the Redskins aren’t far off. A unit that often played from behind last season ranked 17th in yards allowed per play (5.5) but kept Washington competitive in many games.
The Redskins re-signed inside linebacker London Fletcher and left defensive end Adam Carriker to keep intact a front seven that was the team’s greatest strength. Bringing Fletcher back was essential. The defensive captain led the NFL with 166 tackles. More important, he sets the front seven after the huddle, and the Redskins had no replacement for him.
Up front, Barry Cofield promises to be a savvier nose tackle in his second season playing the position. He has seen how divisional opponents want to block him. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins’ return should be a major boost. Before he lost his entire rookie season to a torn ACL in his right knee, he had some coaches calling him the team’s best lineman because of his speed and power.
The secondary challenges the offensive line for the area of greatest weakness. Safety is a major concern. Free safety Brandon Meriweather, a Pro Bowler as recently as 2010, is on his third team in three seasons. Oft-injured strong safety LaRon Landry, a first-round pick in 2007, signed with the New York Jets, leaving a hole that likely will be filled by committee. Josh Wilson was Washington’s best cover corner last season, better than three-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially with a lack of quality cornerback depth. The Redskins need more plays on the ball from the back end.
Kicker Graham Gano enters his third full season still needing to prove himself. Five of his 10 missed field goals last season were blocked — most in the NFL. Coaches desire improved mental toughness from him. Veteran Neil Rackers will compete with Gano in training camp. Rackers’ field goal percentage has decreased each of the last two seasons. Gano has the advantage partly because he excels at the directional kickoffs the Redskins employ. Sav Rocca last season was the best punter the Redskins have had in years. His 28 punts inside the 20 tied for the eighth-most in the NFL.
Return specialist Brandon Banks must prove his worth after failing to score last season. He suffered from the new kickoff rules and averaged only 9.1 yards per punt return.
Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC East
Too many turnovers and too few playmakers relegated the Redskins to a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East. Griffin should help both of those problems. Every rookie quarterback is going to throw picks, but Griffin only has to average fewer than 1.5 per game to improve on what Grossman and John Beck did last season. The Redskins finally have some skill-position players for whom opponents have to game-plan. If the offensive line holds up, this group could rise from the doldrums and be a pleasant surprise.
A solid defense needs to sustain the status quo in order for the offensive upgrades to make a difference. The defense was remarkably healthy in 2011, and there is formidable talent in the front seven. An improved offense must take some pressure off the defense in terms of field position and playing with a lead.
The Redskins swept the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants last season, so there are signs of quality. Shanahan is capable of coaching this group to the playoffs, but even if they fall short, expect a major step forward and a more exciting brand of football.
Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Run, Robert, Run
Robert Griffin III ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. More impressive, perhaps: He missed the national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles by one hundredth of a second during his junior year. He did not break it the next year because he enrolled early at Baylor.
RG3’s off-the-field makeup impressed the Redskins as much as his on-field talent. He graduated high school in three-and-a-half years, finishing seventh in his class. He then graduated from Baylor in three years with a degree in political science. He’s closing in on a master’s degree in communications.
Alone At The Top
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett begins his third season in an awkward spot. He did not hire any of Washington’s defensive assistants. Line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Bob Slowik are Mike Shanahan’s guys. New defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was with Tampa Bay under Redskins general manger Bruce Allen. Keep an eye on Haslett’s status this year.
The Redskins converted second-year receiver Niles Paul to tight end during the offseason. With the numbers Washington has at wide receiver, the switch might help Paul, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska, see the field. The move could affect the status of Chris Cooley, who finished last season on injured reserve (left knee).
Let It Rain
The Redskins in the offseason opened an indoor practice facility, a grassy turf field covered by an inflated bubble. In recent seasons, they held practices on stormy days inside a local airplane hangar or basketball gym. That’s not exactly how Mike Shanahan wants to prepare for game conditions.
Dozens of players turned out in May for the Leukemia Golf Classic, hosted by linebacker Brian Orakpo. The fundraiser, which used to be hosted by quarterback Jason Campbell, has become something of a Redskins tradition. To encourage attendance, Shanahan gave players that day off but counted it against the number of workout days the NFL permits.
Going Old School
The Redskins will wear throwback uniforms for two home games this season as part of celebrating the franchise’s 80th anniversary. The uniforms, with burgundy jerseys and gold pants, are replicas of ones worn in 1937. The coolest touch? The helmets appear as though they’re made of brown leather.
Defensive end Adam Carriker has emerged as the most entertaining Redskin on Twitter. Among the gems from @BigPoppaPump94: “Boy, TSA workers sure don’t like it if you moan while they pat you down.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Fri., Aug. 3
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