The 5 Biggest Issues Facing Washington Redskins with OTAs Wrapped
As with any team, there were some good, bad and downright ugly moments during OTAs for the Washington Redskins. Among the main issues left over is the continuing refinement of quarterback Robert Griffin III's basic technique.
That's going to be an ongoing process, one no fan should expect to see solved in a single offseason. But Griffin isn't alone in still needing work.
Not at all surprisingly, the special teams still has a lot to do to rebound from the nightmare of 2013. Specifically, big questions need answering in both the kicking and return games.
Thankfully, there were signs of encouragement for an offensive line needing to make a lot of progress. Meanwhile, OTAs proved a mixed bag for a trio of young cornerbacks hoping to spark life into a revamped secondary.
Here are the five biggest issues still facing a rebuilding Washington roster following OTAs.
Robert Griffin III's Quest for Better Mechanics
Let's not kid ourselves: Addressing Griffin's basic mechanics is the main reason a supposed quarterback guru like Jay Gruden was hired as head coach.
The early signs are positive, at least in terms of the amount of work Griffin is putting in. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.
ESPN.com Redskins beat reporter John Keim was a close observer of Griffin's work at OTAs. These were his main observations:
Robert Griffin III worked on being more consistent with his mechanics in the offseason and there was a difference. The past two years his base was wider as the Redskins wanted to shorten the stride. He also got into a habit of holding the ball lower, leading to a longer windup when he threw.
But in practice Thursday, Griffin held the ball higher – at the top of the numbers. He also threw with a more narrow base. He likes doing this because he feels more free, giving him the ability to bounce the pocket a little better. Not every quarterback throws with the same base, much like not every hitter uses the same stance at the plate.
Griffin also was throwing more over the top; less windup. So the ball came out a little quicker. He was not always accurate, but he was not off as much as he was, say, last summer when coming back in training camp. And keep in mind that even as a rookie in practice Griffin would have off days throwing the ball.
Regardless, Griffin’s fundamentals were more consistent than they were during the season. The key will be transferring it to the season when it gets chaotic in the pocket.
The most encouraging aspect of Keim's largely positive evaluation of Griffin's early work is the quicker release. Griffin has always functioned best as a fast-breaker.
He is an instinctive player who doesn't thrive when faced with multiple decisions. The adjustment in his stance, or base as Keim refers to it, is also welcome.
Too often, Griffin's basic delivery has suffered from inadequacies in footwork and setting himself for a throw. The fact that he is paying attention to these primary but essential techniques is a good sign.
However, remaking a quarterback long on raw ability, but short on sound fundamentals, is a fluid process. For every peak, count on there being a valley to slow the progress.
Mike Jones of The Washington Post noted that some accuracy problems still linger in Griffin's largely inconsistent game:
Quarterback Robert Griffin III didn’t appear as sharp with some of his passes today as he did last week, narrowly overthrowing or underthrowing receivers at times. He and Andre Roberts appeared to have a miscommunication on one point, and Griffin threw an interception to Perry Riley Jr. underneath, with Roberts nowhere near the play. Griffin did have a couple of nice throws on the run, however. On one play, Griffin displayed the burst that he lacked last season. Griffin stepped up into the pocket before it started to collapse around him. The quarterback then backpedaled and scrambled to the outside, rolling to his right with Brian Orakpo and Riley in pursuit. Griffin located an open Santana Moss and connected with him along the sideline. Initially, Riley told Griffin he would’ve been sacked had it been a game. Then, Riley teased, 'Hey, why didn’t you just throw it to me again?' as they jogged back to the center of the field.
Griffin will naturally endure his stumbles as he works on getting more assured throwing the ball. This is exactly the value of a full offseason workout for the player this franchise has tied its fate to.
Gruden must ensure his star quarterback is constantly seeking to refine rough aspects and bad habits. The Washington offense has a legitimate chance to be one of the NFL's best this season.
But that will depend largely on Griffin's progress as a pro passer.
Too Many Questions, Not Enough Answers on Special Teams
Erasing the memory of last season's special teams horror show was never going to happen overnight. It's no surprise then that the unit remains one of this team's biggest issues.
New coordinator Ben Kotwica needs solutions to emerge in the kicking game. He found few answers during OTAs.
Kotwica should be most concerned that no standout has yet stepped forward to handle the punting chores. Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler highlighted that neither of the current contenders distinguished themselves:
The two punters on the team, Robert Malone and Blake Clingan, have kicked some during the OTAs that have been open to the media but neither has made much an impression. Between the two I’d have to say that Malone, who has some NFL punting experience, is the favorite. But there is a good chance that a player named 'none of the above' ends up punting against the Texans in Week 1. If neither is getting the job done in the preseason, a veteran punter could be pulled off of the street.
The prospect of still needing to look elsewhere for an answer to this long-standing position is both troubling and annoying.
While there is no obvious front-runner to be placekicker, at least the calibre of competition seems higher. Mike Jones of The Washington Post noted that Kai Forbath isn't making it easy for seventh-round rookie Zach Hocker to take his job: "Kickers Kai Forbath and Zach Hocker squared off for a little competition at the end of practice, and both veteran and rookie nailed all three of their field goal attempts – each recording a long of 51 yards out."
A battle this close only benefits Washington. Whichever player emerges as the winner should be a better kicker, more adept at handling pressure, for the experience.
If there are few answers about who will kick the ball in 2014, there's even less of an idea about how the return game will look. Kotwica seems to be content to throw numbers at the problem and see who sticks.
ESPN.com's John Keim highlighted the crowded field of names who have given return duties a try: "Here are the players I saw returning kicks Thursday: Lache Seastrunk, Chris Thompson, Nick Williams, Andre Roberts and Rashad Ross."
Thompson might be a name to watch in this five-man battle royal. He is certainly quick and shifty enough to be a factor returning the ball, provided, of course, he can hold onto it.
Keim also noted that last year's fifth-round pick looks healthy, which is giving him the chance to impress with his speed:
It was tough to see running back Chris Thompson's speed last season, whether in spring, summer or before he was shut down during the season. He was coming off a knee injury. But he’s a year removed from that injury and the speed was more evident. Still worry about his durability, but he looked fast after running with a pass in the open field (during a spring practice).
Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen have rightly paid special teams a lot of attention this offseason. Their efforts should lead to superior coverage units, especially with the arrival of linebackers Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton and Adam Hayward, all specialists in that area.
But this team still needs to find dynamic returners and dependable kickers ahead of the new season.
Young Cornerbacks Need to Match Aggression with Disciplined Technique
One sure way of improving a pass defense that allowed 3,896 yards last season, per numbers from NFL.com, is to get more aggressive on the outside. Thankfully, Washington appears to boast a trio of young cornerbacks ready, willing and able to do just that.
David Amerson, Chase Minnifield and rookie Bashaud Breeland all made an impression during OTAs as cornerbacks who will rough up receivers. In particular, Breeland managed to impress fans and coaches, but irk some teammates.
ESPN.com reporter John Keim highlighted how Breeland isn't shy about sticking to his receiver by any means he can:
Rookie corner Bashaud Breeland still needs to be less grabby. Saw him tugging Santana Moss' jersey downfield before the veteran caught the ball. Saw Breeland tugging other jerseys as they broke on a route (after the allotted five yards of contact). Not sure all the receivers quite appreciated his hands.
Although he might not have endeared himself to teammates, Breeland's physical tendencies are certain to annoy wideouts once the real action begins. Despite the untidy edges to his game, The Post's Jones has stated there's still plenty to like about the 2014 fourth-round pick's potential:
Rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland had a good practice on Wednesday and appeared to avoid getting into trouble by using his hands too much as he seemed to do at times at the rookie camp and last week. On one play today, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson tried to shake Breeland with a move, but the rookie stayed right with him. Robinson still wound up making the catch as the ball narrowly missed Breeland’s fingertips and fell into Robinson’s hands, but secondary coach Raheem Morris applauded Breeland’s technique on the play. Later, Breeland got the best of the speedy Robinson, running with him stride for stride downfield on a deep route and swatting away what would’ve been a touchdown. Interestingly, Breeland fell in the draft because of a poor 40-yard-dash time (4.62 seconds). But he appears much faster than that. There’s an obvious difference between clock fast and football fast, because Breeland hasn’t gotten dusted when it comes to flat-out running. He had told coaches that he didn’t feel like he had learned the proper technique required to run an impressive 40-yard-dash. But coaches are very happy with what they’ve seen so far, and they believe that this time next year, he could be a difference-maker.
If Breeland can match his tenacious attitude and physical approach with quality technique, he'll be a key figure in the rotation sooner than the Redskins currently believe.
One of the positives about drafting Breeland is his size. The 5'11", 197-pounder adds another big cornerback to a position that needs to be more physically imposing in 2014.
Last year's second-rounder David Amerson will play a key role in that transition. The 6'1", 205-pounder is already looking more adept as a press-based cover man, according to Keim:
Corner David Amerson looks more comfortable in press coverage and is using his long arms to his advantage when jamming receivers. Saw him do this a couple times, showing good technique and not getting beat in this look. It’s something he needed to work on as a rookie and I’m sure the learning curve will continue. But with his length and speed it’s a necessary tactic for him to learn.
This pass defense needs Amerson to become the type of cornerback who can envelop receivers at the line and prevent clean releases. He certainly has the frame to do it.
With veteran DeAngelo Hall not afraid to use his hands on the other side, Amerson's progress will give Washington two physical cover men on the edge. Their ability to jam receivers can slow down the decision-making process for quarterbacks, giving pressure more time to crush the pocket.
Relying on that type of coverage will give defensive coordinator Jim Haslett greater license to get more creative with his fronts and blitz concepts.
Minnifield is another corner looking to be a feature of that plan. He certainly has the right demeanour for it, if his antics during OTAs are anything to go by. Per Keim:
Corner Chase Minnifield will get into a lot of tussles this camp – a safe prediction. He nearly got into one with tight end Niles Paul Thursday. Minnifield is physical and feisty and that will never please those running routes in practice. This time, Minnifield was grabbing Paul on the entire route and at the end Paul shoved him. Minnifield bounced up and shoved him back. It didn’t escalate.
The 6'0", 185-pounder is another player with decent size to play press. But he also showed the sort of versatility that will have impressed secondary coach Raheem Morris, per Keim: "Minnifield did pick off a Kirk Cousins pass in zone coverage. Minnifield sank deep on the route and grabbed a pass that was intended for Williams."
The former rookie free agent will need that sort of range to eventually crack a roster spot. If he can stay healthy, Minnifield's mix of solid technique and competitive edge will be very useful in sub-packages.
It is also a combination Breeland and Amerson must cultivate more consistently. Haslett's secondary looked good at times last season when allowed to play aggressively.
But such techniques can only work when matched with basic fundamentals, which must be continually refined throughout this offseason. The last thing the Redskins want is to frequently surrender significant chunks of yardage via penalties.
Haslett's starting defensive backfield is likely to have a distinctly veteran appearance. Hall and safeties Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather will be leading figures.
However, the real key to success will be the support and depth provided by the younger members.
O-Line Is Taking Shape, but Must Continue Improvement
Getting better along the offensive front will be vital to how successful this team can be in 2014. Paul St. Jean of The Washington Times has noted the pressure is on the group to not let talent at the skill positions go to waste:
In 2013 NFL.com ranked Washington's offensive line as 19th in the league, allowing 43 sacks and 96 quarterback hits. If the Redskins hope to make good use of new offensive weapons like DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts, they need an O-line that will give quarterback Robert Griffin III the opportunity to make plays.
But they enter camp with a bit of a question mark in the middle.
The question mark in the middle St. Jean referred to is the change at center. An overhaul of the position was certainly needed after previous starter Will Montgomery muddled his way through most of 2013.
Montgomery particularly struggled recognizing and adjusting to pressure. That will now be the job of former left guard Kory Lichtensteiger.
St. Jean has stated that Lichtensteiger's early foray into anchoring the O-line has gone reasonably well, but stresses competition is still open at this key spot:
Lichtensteiger has impressed coaches and teammates this spring with his abilities at his new position, but new coach Jay Gruden isn’t ready to anoint him the starter just yet.
'Kory is obviously very athletic. [He’s] done a good job at center. Mike McGlynn is here. He can play center, both guards. [Offensive lineman] Ronald [Tevita] Stevens had a great couple days in OTAs, he’s competing with them at center-guard. [Guard] Chris Chester can play center also, so there’s competition there, I promise you that.'
Despite all the competition Lichtensteiger has emerged as the favorite at the position because of his mobility and experience.
Every coach sounds the competition bell at this time of the year, so Lictensteiger's status as eventual starter is not likely to be in real jeopardy. However, many fans would probably breathe a lot easier if the picture at the interior of the line was a little clearer at this stage.
The inside trio were the chief culprits for the group's considerable failings last season. That includes Lichtensteiger, who not only has the challenge of learning a new position, but must also improve his performances from a year ago.
The O-line will remain under scrutiny throughout the offseason. The fate of the offense, and the team as a whole, is probably in the hands of the five eventual starters.
Matching the Shanahan System with Gruden's Playbook
An intriguing factor in this season's offense will be how new head coach Jay Gruden matches his playbook with the best parts of the system left behind by the Shanahan regime.
As much as some may be loath to admit it, there were positives in the schemes installed by Mike and Kyle Shanahan. Gruden is now attempting to cherry-pick the best parts.
Nowhere is that mix more evident than along the offensive line, as Jones has pointed out:
Much of the offensive line responsibilities and methods will remain the same – particularly in the run game, where while using zone-blocking schemes, Washington has ranked among the league leaders in each of the past two seasons. Because of that success, Gruden retained offensive line coach Chris Foerster. And, in another move that will help ensure continuity, Gruden promoted tight ends coach Sean McVay to offensive coordinator. Gruden has designed an offense that features the best of Washington’s attack in the past two seasons along with significant portions of his own playbook from his time as offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals.
It's always tough for any coach to strike the right balance between what his players are most comfortable with and his own philosophical preferences. One of the most encouraging aspects of the early Allen-Gruden stewardship has been the willingness to retain what's working even if it's somebody else's design.
Not only is the zone-based running game staying, but so is the 3-4 defense, a scheme that can succeed with more expansive play calling.
But back to Gruden's offense, it isn't just the blockers who are getting up to speed. Skill players like Griffin are enthusiastic about what the initial scheme looks like, per Mark Maske of The Washington Post:
We’ve had six practices and we’ve had good days and we’ve had lesser days. But altogether I think it’s been great for us as an offense. I think it is coming together nicely. The quarterback room is doing really well and we’re ahead on a lot of things. But that’s where we’re supposed to be. We’ve got to have that mastery of the offense. But coming out here to the field … doing some talking at the line, getting some things under control and getting the looks that we need to be in, it’s been good.
Hopefully Gruden's tweaks, added to a successful base, can create a potent schematic mix that maximizes the dynamic talent Washington boasts on offense.
That would produce a unit capable of inspiring a significant turnaround from last season's 3-13 finish.