Breaking Down Washington Redskins' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
On the surface, predicting the Washington Redskins' Week 1 starting lineup after one game may seem excessive. With every current success and tiny development to cheer, one inescapable fact remains: It's just preseason.
We'll get a reasonable idea of how things are progressing, but no one will take any achievement seriously until Week 1. As Dan Steinberg highlighted for The Washington Post, the Washington Redskins are in the middle of a "Golden Age of preseason football."
What does that mean? Nothing.
In 2013, Washington went 4-0 in the preseason and 3-13 in the regular season. For Redskins fans, hope has a way of burning those who clutch it too close.
What we can learn from the preseason is which players are close to the starting lineup, which second-year players are taking the next step and whether injuries have abated in marquee players.
With one game in the books, we've taken a step closer to cementing that lineup, so let's go further and break down each position.
Starter: Robert Griffin III
Now, if we could just convince the national media that Robert Griffin III is going to start in Week 1, everything at the quarterback position would be just fine.
Jay Gruden has confirmed his commitment to the franchise quarterback, and the uncertainty comes from the 2014 outlook. If Griffin can show development as a passer, go through his progressions and make the right reads, that constitutes a good season.
It's also essential that Griffin gets out of bounds and protects himself as much as possible. Yes, we saw Johnny Manziel take off up the middle against the Detroit Lions and put his head down going into a block, but he also got down and eliminated contact. Griffin didn't do that his rookie year.
Nevertheless, with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed to throw too, it's not unreasonable to get excited about Griffin in 2014. He has all the tools to make a massive impact in this league, but let's temper our expectations for one more season. Growth and consistency are the keys this year.
Behind Griffin, Kirk Cousins is one of the better backups in the league. Cousins has shown he can win games in relief of RG3, and although he too has a lot to learn, Gruden can be confident in Cousins' ability, commitment and leadership.
Whether Gruden chooses to keep Colt McCoy as further insurance remains to be seen, but it wouldn't be a bad decision.
Starter: Alfred Morris
Fullback: Darrel Young
Third-down back: Roy Helu Jr.
Since being taken in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Alfred Morris has been the most consistent player on the team. That's an impressive feat in itself, but made more so when you take into account how many teams stacked the box last year in an attempt to contain him.
Morris is someone Gruden doesn't have to worry about. He'll show up, work hard and remain humble through his success. With Gruden's arrival, Morris has been catching a lot more passes in camp, which he hasn't really done before.
It's mostly been a success, although Morris dropped two passes at practice on Friday. According to Mike Jones at The Washington Post, this promoted linebacker Adam Hayward to exclaim "you don’t even have to cover this guy. He can’t catch!” True to form, Morris stayed behind to catch passes while the special teams drills took place.
Behind Morris, Roy Helu Jr. is likely to assume the role of third-down back. He's got good hands, good speed and is the most accomplished blocker among those vying for his role.
He can be impatient when seeking a hole or making a cut, which can lead to negative yards. However, the prospect of Chris Thompson or Lache Seastrunk being asked to block consistently doesn't exactly bring joy.
Seastrunk flashed some big-play potential against New England, and Thompson has had a good camp overall. Unfortunately, Thompson's injury problems have returned to keep him out of practice and concede valuable reps.
Seastrunk has dropped some passes in camp, and he remains a work in progress. With a good preseason, he could sneak his way onto the roster purely out of fear he could be claimed before being stashed on the practice squad.
Starters: Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Andre Roberts
This offseason, Gruden swung for the fences with his wide receiver acquisitions. DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts will drop straight into the starting lineup and present opposing defenses with a multitude of problems.
Jackson offers a deep threat that defenses simply cannot ignore, while Garcon will play physically and make tough catches in traffic before taking one to the house.
Roberts may have been brought in to play opposite Garcon, but his versatility means he'll likely start the season in the slot. That doesn't mean that he won't get some reps on the outside as Gruden attempts to keep the offense fresh, but barring injury, he won't overtake Jackson or Garcon.
What he will do is run great routes and allow Griffin to throw the ball with the knowledge that Roberts will be where he should be. In an effort by the defense to take Jackson and Garcon out of the game, the field could open up for Roberts to make some big plays in his first year as a Redskin.
The starters are basically decided. The real battle is further down the depth chart. Whether Gruden carries six or seven receivers on the 53-man roster, there will be a good player missing the cut.
Leonard Hankerson is on his way back from ACL surgery and caught passes from Cousins after practice concluded Friday. Mike Jones of The Washington Post observed that "Hankerson appeared to run at full-speed, or as close to full-speed as your eyes would suggest as you watch a guy running routes without anybody near him for reference."
Redskins coaches and doctors will not want to rush him back, so there's a fair chance Hankerson starts on the PUP list. However, that would mean taking seven receivers. Right now, Aldrick Robinson, Santana Moss and Ryan Grant are ahead of Hankerson and unlikely to concede any ground before Week 1.
Starter: Jordan Reed
Jordan Reed is coming off an incredibly successful season, even though it was shortened by concussion injuries. Reed is expected to play a large part in the Redskins offense this year, with NFL.com's Dan Hanzus singling him out as a "Making the Leap" candidate.
Last year it was all about comparing him to Aaron Hernandez, potential-wise. This year Reed will look to take take on more responsibility as a blocker while continuing to be Griffin's safety blanket over the middle.
If he can avoid another head injury, the sky's the limit for Reed.
Logan Paulsen will continue to operate primarily as a blocker, but he needs to demonstrate better hands than last year. Paulsen was previously a solid option as a pass-catcher, but he dropped too many balls in 2013 and saw himself fall out favor as a target.
With Gruden's predilection for two-tight end sets in Cincinnati, Paulsen could see further opportunities to make an impact for this team.
Niles Paul will make his mark primarily on special teams, which should be much improved under new coach Ben Kotwica. Rookie TE Ted Bolser, meanwhile, will struggle to make the final 53. Bolser has been inconsistent with his hands and his routes. While he got better as training camp went on, the step up to the pro level seems pretty big to him right now.
Starters: Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Kory Lichtensteiger, Chris Chester, Tyler Polumbus
With all the offseason talk about how the Redskins needed to overhaul their offensive line, it's perhaps surprising that they're likely to start with almost the same personnel.
Kory Lichtensteiger has moved to center, which is perhaps his more natural position. Lichtensteiger was bullied a little bit at guard last year, and his lack of size seemed to hurt him. At center he will receive more support from his teammates and won't be required to take on as much.
Trent Williams is the star of the line and has aligned his fearsome ability with the dedication he seemed to lack in his early days. With two consecutive Pro Bowl nods, Williams' next step is to be recognized as the best left tackle in the league.
Shawn Lauvao adds some bulk to the line and is better in pass protection than any other guard on the roster. He's got some work to do in run support but is athletic and strong enough to contribute to the more power-based running game that Gruden favors.
After a real drop-off in form last year, Chris Chester has a lot to prove. In 2012, he looked comfortable and solid, whether it was protecting Griffin or opening up holes for the running game. Both coaches and fans will be hoping for a return to that form, but the good news for Chester is that there isn't anyone behind him who has shown they can offer more.
Tyler Polumbus should also be thankful for that fact. Morgan Moses will replace him eventually, but that won't happen by Week 1. Moses has struggled to keep his pad level low, which has allowed him to be overpowered by rookies and vets alike.
Polumbus retains the right tackle spot by default. Should he fail to protect Griffin effectively, Gruden could turn to the rookie by midseason, but Moses would first need to show considerable growth.
Starters: Jason Hatcher, Barry Cofield, Chris Baker
The defensive line is a little more fluid, but that's mostly due to potential injury hangovers. Jason Hatcher is the de facto starter at defensive end, but it's all dependent on his return from arthroscopic surgery.
Hatcher is working his way back to an appearance in the third preseason game, according to John Keim at ESPN. This should give him a little time to get acclimated to his new teammates and the scheme that Jim Haslett is running, but it's unreasonable to expect fireworks against the Houston Texans in Week 1.
Barry Cofield had a tough start to 2013 when he broke his hand in the preseason and had to sport an unwieldy club bandage. Needless to say, he struggled along with the rest of the defense. However, as the season went on, Cofield's performances got better.
Cofield won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2007 and will be looking to get another one while in Washington. Newly 30, Cofield must know that his opportunities are dwindling. However, he's been encouraged by the Redskins' new-look defense.
Speaking to Elliott Smith at The Washington Post, Cofield was optimistic about Haslett's scheme:
I love the aggression and I love that we are playing to people’s strengths. We have a lot of talented guys with a lot of different skill sets on this defense, and this accentuates everyone’s strong points...I feel great. I feel as comfortable as I’ve ever felt. Everybody is going to be put in position to make plays, so I’m extremely excited.
At the other defensive end spot, Chris Baker seemingly has the edge over Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins has reportedly woken up to the fact that he has disappointed so far and is now taking steps to make amends.
Nevertheless, Baker has been willing to work and get better, which has resulted in a strong training camp and his current position as a starter.
Stephen Bowen is the wild card, as we don't yet know how he will respond after microfracture surgery. According to John Keim at ESPN, Bowen has agreed to restructure his contract with the Redskins. With the defensive end set to count for $7 million against the cap, this will be very useful.
Starters: Brian Orakpo, Keenan Robinson, Perry Riley, Ryan Kerrigan
Like it or not, there is a lot riding on Keenan Robinson this year. The 2012 fourth-round pick is yet to prove he can stay healthy. With him taking over London Fletcher's leadership role, Redskins fans are right to be uneasy.
While Fletcher was a real leader and consummate professional last year, it was obvious that he had lost a step or two. He struggled to get to the ball-carrier in time despite being in the correct position to make the tackle.
If Robinson goes down this year, there's not a lot of depth behind him. Gruden brought in Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward, but that was more for special teams contributions. Perry Riley could feasibly take over as the "Mike" linebacker spot, but Robinson has been getting all the first-team reps at the position.
On the outside, Washington is strong. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are constant disruptive threats, and with the more aggressive defense that Cofield described, both players should have the opportunity to get to the quarterback.
Both are less effective when asked to drop into coverage, so Haslett would be wise to maximize their abilities as a pass-rushers.
The addition of rookie Trent Murphy will allow Haslett to do that, switching his personnel around and making his defense less conservative and predictable than it was last year.
Starters: DeAngelo Hall, David Amerson
One of the more positive reports out of Redskins camp concerns the development of David Amerson.
Amerson has looked more confident and comfortable in Washington's defensive scheme, with Haslett calling his play this year "night and day" from last season, per Rich Tandler at CSN Washington.
Amerson has also come back bigger than he was last year, which should help him when going up against larger receivers on the outside. There will inevitably be some growing pains as he makes the transition from nickel corner to full-time starter, but the signs are good so far.
DeAngelo Hall will aim to provide Amerson with the leadership and guidance he needs while continuing his run as the best player in the secondary.
Hall spent nearly all of last year going against the opposition's best receiver, but he should see that responsibility lessened a little in 2014. If Amerson is ready to take on more as part of this team, Hall should have more freedom to make plays.
Behind them, rookie Bashaud Breeland has made a positive start to life in the NFL, despite his recent citation for marijuana possession. He'll face punishment from the commissioner, but hopefully he can learn his lesson and concentrate fully on football.
Tracy Porter is perhaps slightly ahead of Breeland on the depth chart, but it's certainly not by much. There's a real chance that Breeland sees the field as nickel corner this year.
Starters: Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather
The fact that the Redskins have two vets on one-year contracts starting at safety says it all. This remains a weakness on a team that cannot seem to get it right.
Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas were both absent last year for different reasons. Rambo struggled mightily with his tackling, while Thomas suffered a Lisfranc injury that ended his season before it began.
Rambo had a solid showing in the preseason and showed real signs of improvement. Thomas continues to frustrate, however.
While he looked good in training camp and OTAs, Thomas suffered a hamstring strain which has limited his involvement in the preseason. It's absolutely vital that he gets reps with his teammates, or he's sure to fall out of the coaches' favor.
For now, then, it's Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather who will start. Clark is being brought in as much for his leadership as his play, while his instincts and football acumen should see Meriweather back at his more natural position in the box.
The secondary is a concern, and should anything happen to Clark or Meriweather, the season could go downhill very quickly.
Kicker: Zach Hocker
Punter: Robert Malone
Long Snapper: Nick Sundberg
This is a difficult call to make. While kicker Kai Forbath hasn't really done anything wrong, Zach Hocker has the edge over him due to his superior kickoffs. Forbath has the experience and has delivered under pressure in the past, yet it was him who made mistakes in the first preseason game.
The fact that Hocker was also drafted says a lot about how the coaches feel about him, too. This battle won't be decided until after the final preseason game, but Hocker looks most likely to come out victorious.
Since neither punter excelled himself against New England, Robert Malone has the edge due to experience only. Malone has played in 31 NFL games to Blake Clingan's zero, Time will tell though, so this position has a large asterisk next to the starter's name.
Nick Sundberg has shown he can be effective as the Redskins long snapper, and short of a complete collapse, there's no reason why that won't continue.
Elsewhere on special teams, Coach Kotwica is the key. Instilling a military sense of discipline and accountability will make them into a real unit, and the fact that position coaches have also been coaching special teams is a very encouraging sign.