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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Washington Redskins Season Preview

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Washington Redskins (projected finish: 8-8)

Team synopsis: For a brief moment, the McNabb trade will appear to be successful.  Behind a re-stocked offensive line, McNabb’s experience in picking apart defenses with marginal receivers will come in handy.  It’s the one hit McNabb doesn’t see coming that could de-rail Washington’s season: this is a sub-.500 team with Rex Grossman at quarterback.  Their first two non-conference games are significantly easier than their next two, which will help feed the perception that the team wins and loses with McNabb, but as is standard with all Mike Shanahan teams, the rushing attack paces everything that the Redskins will do, independent of the quarterback.

Best Players

  • QB Donovan McNabb (trade — Philadelphia/2010 2nd round pick, 2011 mid-round pick)
  • TE Chris Cooley (drafted — Utah State/2004 3rd round pick)
  • DE Albert Haynesworth (signed — Tennessee/2009 free agent)
  • LB Brian Orakpo (drafted — Texas/2009 1st round pick)
  • LB London Fletcher (signed — Buffalo/2007 free agent)
  • CB Carlos Rogers (drafted — Auburn/2005 1st round pick)
  • FS Reed Doughty (drafted — Northern Colorado/2006 6th round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Keiland Williams (signed — LSU/2010 undrafted free agent)
  • RB Ryan Torain (signed — Denver/2010 free agent)
  • TE Fred Davis (drafted — USC/2008 2nd round pick)
  • LT Trent Williams (drafted — Oklahoma/2010 1st round pick)
  • DE Jeremy Jarmon (drafted — Kentucky/2009 3rd round supplemental pick)
  • FS Kareem Moore (drafted — Nicholls State/2008 6th round pick)

Credit the Redskins for never being tentative to play to their perceived strengths, no matter how often it comes back to bite them.  The Vinny Cerrato/Jim Zorn regime gave Cerrato total control over personnel moves, and clearly, Cerrato’s only intention was to add as much talent to the roster as he could in a short amount of time, with little concern for both the future and how that talent might be used in the future.  The draft hastily led to draft picks such as the trio of pass catchers in the second round of the 2008 draft: Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, and Fred Davis.  You saw it about a few weeks before that, with the Chad Ochocinco trade rumors (reports are that the Redskins offered a first and a third, and the Bengals turned it down).  You saw it with the hastily inked free agent signings of DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth — fine individual players who didn’t really fill an obvious hole in the Redskins’ defense.

You saw it consistently at the quarterback position: Jason Campbell pitched in an above average season in 2008 that might have resulted in a pro bowl nomination under the current rules.  Cerrato saw the quarterback position as another place where he needed an elite player, ignoring the fact that getting one without developing one takes a really high draft pick.  Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez exemplify the fallacy here: both would have been too expensive to require, and ultimately would have provided the same blank slate the Redskins already had with Campbell.  If the Redskins wanted an elite player at the quarterback position, Cerrato would have needed to be serious about developing Campbell.  Player development didn’t fit in to Cerrato’s plan of adding more quantity wherever it may be available.

Cerrato had a falling out with his head coach and his quarterback, blaming each — and pretty much everyone but himself — for his failures after he was fired.  Zorn has moved on to Baltimore, where he will be quarterbacks coach.  He replaces Hue Jackson in that role, who moves across the country to help coordinate Oakland’s offense.  His protégé?  Jason Campbell, who was acquired from Washington for a fourth round pick.  Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen are in charge of the Redskins now, which should eliminate epic failures such as the 4-12 season from last year.

Problem solved, right?  That remains to be seen, as things are clearly being done differently now.  No longer is there such a drive to add talented names at all costs, with no care for how the players will actually be used.  One thing that’s for certain based on his time in Oakland and Tampa Bay is that Bruce Allen will not set Mike Shanahan up for failure, the way that Cerrato did with Zorn.

But as previously seen in Denver, Allen might be helpless to save Shanahan from himself.  The power structure in Washington is worse than it was before.  Cerrato and Zorn failed because Cerrato was incompetent as a leader, and because Zorn had no ability to deal with adversity.  But the power structure was as clear as it had ever been in Washington.  Cerrato made the decisions, Zorn coached the team.  Now, Shanahan is the head coach, but he is also the personnel guy.  Bruce Allen is the general manager, and will have significant pull, but it’s unclear exactly where his responsibilities lie.  He might end up being a glorified team president.  If he, not the absence of Cerrato, is to credit for the Redskins’ 2010 free agent deals being in line with the current economic climate, his hiring is already paying dividends.

Shanahan has yet to accomplish anything as coach of the Redskins, but is already butting heads with DE Albert Haynesworth, a player who he will need to establish the kind of defense that he was lacking in Denver.  Gifted with the pieces to make a transition to the 3-4 defense, the side of the ball that was loaded from the Cerrato days, and that defense has always done in Shanahan’s teams since 1999, with the exception of the 2005 season, one might think that Shanahan would tread lightly with the team’s best defensive player.  Treading lightly might not be in Mike Shanahan’s DNA, which could spell long-term trouble for the Redskins.  Shanahan has long gotten the credit for what went right in Denver, but the last thing the Redskins want to find out is that the things that went wrong there could have been prevented if Shanahan had simply been more willing to win someone elses, perhaps anyone elses way.

Haynesworth is the best player on the Redskins, and should develop a nice relationship with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, if not Shanahan.  He is, however, not a critical piece of the Redskins 3-4 front, where the team has potentially just one weakness: inside linebacker.  Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Kedric Golston will make an efficient rotation at the nose tackle position.  Adam Carriker, Vonnie Holliday, Jeremy Jarmon, and Phillip Daniels will be a good group at the DE position.  Howard Green provides depth if he can make the roster.  Haynesworth, by far, is the dominant player of the group, but the focus of the group is the linebackers.

The Redskins have an embarrassment of riches at the outside linebacker position, with Brian Orakpo on one side and Lorenzo Alexander on the other.  You may have yet to hear of Lorenzo Alexander, but he’s slated to start across from Orakpo in a very strong and deep unit, so it’s only a matter of time.  Andre Carter comes off a career year.  His number one role this season will be as a third down pass rusher, but he will also help defend the run, relieving Alexander in select situations.  Chris Wilson is an excellent pass rusher who should be the immediate backup to Orakpo.  His role could be critical if Orakpo gets hurt.

London Fletcher will run point on the unit at linebacker.  At age 35, and with a contract that ends after 2011, you do have to wonder how much longer Fletcher can go playing at an elite level.  His play dropped off slightly from 2008 to 2009, but still, you’d be hard pressed to find five inside linebackers in the NFL who are better.  I get the feeling that Fletcher can be great as long as he wants to be.  Starting next to Fletcher will be…someone.  HB Blades might be the best, but he has limited starting experience.  Rocky McIntosh will get first crack, but the Redskins have shown little interest in extending his contract, so they won’t be shy about benching him.  Chris Draft is in camp as well.  Perry Riley will make the team, he was the fourth round pick out of LSU, but he seemed like a reach.  He might not even be the best LSU rookie on the team.

The defense has issues in the secondary.  Carlos Rogers is the best cover player in it, and he’s not afraid to come up and hit a running back on the edges.  Reed Doughty, who was non-tendered LAST YEAR, might be the best player in the secondary.  He’s quick to close on running backs, and embodies the Redskin identity on defense: Doughty hardly ever misses a tackle.  He’s faster than he’s given credit for, and is the Redskins’ best cover safety.  He also might lose his job to prospect Kareem Moore, who is a third year player who the Redskins like as a deep coverage safety.  Chris Horton appears to be a forgotten man in this defense: he burst onto the scene in 2008 as a rookie and looked like a future star.  Three games into 2009, he was benched.  Horton is not expected to be a major piece of this year’s defense, and if he can bulk up, his future in the league could be at linebacker.

There is only one unit (besides linebacker, which benefits from getting DEs moved to that position) on the Redskins that is significantly improved from last season.  It’s not quarterback.  The offensive line has gotten a complete facelift from last year, and at no position is it more significant than at offensive tackle, where the Levi Jones/Stephon Heyer/Mike Williams trio has become a duo of Sooners: left tackle Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, and right tackle Jamaal Brown, acquired from the Saints for a mid-round selection.  Brown could be just a one year rental (scheduled for free agency after 2010), or more than that depending on performance, but this figures to be a very good offensive tackle duo.  The interior line is troublesome, with Derrick Dockery and Casey Rabach returning after starting 16 games next to each other on a mess of an offensive line.  The right guard will be Artis Hicks, a free agent signing.  He’s not very good, but this is the Redskins OL, and given the tackles upgrade, it’s hard to complain (I will however, complain in the next section).

Also, you may have heard: the Redskins traded for Donovan McNabb.  I expect McNabb to be one of the Redskins better players this year, as we have seen him in Philadelphia against the same competition already.  We know his strengths and limitations as a quarterback in the NFC East.  There will be no surprises here.  I expect this trade to be one of the worst trades made by the Redskins, at least since the Jason Taylor trade a couple of years back.

It’s a reasonable conclusion for Mike Shanahan to take a look at the incumbent quarterback, Jason Campbell, and to look at regressions made in pocket presence and accuracy in the 2009 season (both were excellent features of his game in 2008), and to consider him to be highly overcoached, and not worth teaching a new system to.  That’s a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence.  I happen to think that Jason Campbell would have been excellent in the scheme — Bruce Allen is on record saying as much — and he was already under contract with the team, but the Redskins didn’t NEED Jason Campbell to be successful.  But to make your 28 year old quarterback expendable because a 33 year old quarterback with a lengthy injury history and even worse accuracy issues and pocket sense comes available…this might be the very definition of insanity.  A lot of league observers look at this trade from Philadelphia’s perspective, see what the Eagles are giving up, and conclude that the Redskins are getting the excess.  Trades in the NFL are not a zero-sum game.

McNabb’s strengths are far more pronounced than Campbell’s.  Jason Campbell has a very good NFL arm.  McNabb has a cannon.  He’s accurate on the deep ball (at least he has been in his early thirties — and so was Jake Delhomme), and he throws it so effortlessly.  Both have long releases, but neither is mechanically flawed.  Campbell is the better runner at this point in his career, but McNabb is still a threat to kill you outside of the pocket.

You can compare the numbers though, and you won’t find a huge difference.  Campbell has posted sack rates of 7.0 and 7.8% the last two seasons, and has been raked over the coals for it.  McNabb has been over 8% three times in his career, most recently in 2007%.  Campbell’s completion percentage in 2009 was 64.5%, that would be a career high for McNabb.  McNabb has the best completion percentage “index” (adjusted for league average year) of either him or Jason Campbell — 115 in 2004.  Campbell has the second and third best seasons (2008 and 2009).  McNabb’s INT rate is one of the best in history, but Campbell is one of the least-picked quarterbacks of the last three seasons.

If you compare Donovan McNabb’s Philadelphia career to Mark Brunell’s Jacksonville days, you see two guys who were the same age when they were acquired.  Brunell is third on the list of lowest career INT rates, one behind McNabb.  They each had four great seasons in their primes, and any number of good seasons around that.  Brunell’s arm strength lasted about two years with the Redskins before declining severely, and his game wasn’t built as much on arm strength as McNabb’s was.  Brunell’s sack rate actually increased with his move to Washington, which is rare.  McNabb won’t be scaled back nearly as much, which could lead to a “sink or swim” mentality with the veteran.  The biggest difference between the two acquisitions is that the Redskins paid more for McNabb.  The players are quite similar.

Nobody remotely comparable to McNabb as a quarterback has been effective at the age of 35.  Not Troy Aikman or Steve McNair.  Not Terry Bradshaw or Boomer Esiason.  Brunell was passable in decline, at least, but Jake Delhomme was not.  If you expand the scope of similarity, John Elway was successful in the Shanahan system into his late thirties, but by 1995, he was relying almost exclusively on a running game to open up holes.  Elway, at least, was 35 when Shanahan came in.  McNabb turns 34 in November.  There’s some time to get this right, but it will run out fast.

Redskins fans have offered two common refrains with McNabb: that this move is for 5-6 years into the future, and that McNabb is worth somewhere between 2 to 4 wins over Jason Campbell.  It’s hard to pick which assertion is more insane.  In both cases, the bs-detectors should be blaring.  McNabb’s decline could begin as soon as this year, and by year two or three of the Redskins tenure, the decline will be occurring in such obvious ways that you won’t need statistics to realize his deep ball is losing zip, and he’s hardly ever on the field anyway.  For the Redskins, of all teams, to pay a second and third round pick for the right to experience this: it’s a mistake.

Still, we can look at the team McNabb will be playing with right now and think, “there might be a playoff team here.”  The Redskins have not one, but two excellent tight ends.  Fred Davis is going to play more tight end than Chris Cooley this year, but that’s not going to force Captain Chaos to the bench.  Cooley is going to play everything: split end, fullback, wing back, flanker, holder.  Cooley is a top three fantasy tight end in this offense.  Davis is a fringe fantasy starter.  I don’t know the last time a team had two starting caliber fantasy TEs on the same team, but these are the 2010 Redskins.

There is plenty of young talent at running back on this roster, as is standard with Shanahan teams.  The problem is: it’s all blocked by veterans.  Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson figure to get about 85% of the carries between them, but more than that, figure to be very unhappy if they have to share with more than each other.  Willie Parker shouldn’t be much of a factor, even if he makes the roster, but the Redskins need to get game reps to young Keiland Williams and Ryan Torain: these guys can play at the pro level.

You’ll hear plenty of preseason tales about the progress made by Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, but these are recycled storylines from last year.  Kelly is talented, but doesn’t have a pro football player’s body.  It breaks down too easily.  Thomas has NFL speed, but little else.  He’s lacking in football-specific skills.  Both have fallen behind Joey Galloway and Roydell Williams on the depth chart.  That probably doesn’t mean anything in the long run, but you know, it did happen.  Two guys who should have retired two years ago are the Redskins’ 2nd and 3rd receivers in camp.  McNabb has done more with less about the same, and we know that bringing Campbell back would have resulted in the same futility of the past two years.

None of this was Campbell’s fault, but it’s now McNabb’s mess to clean up.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

The Redskins acquired quarterback John Beck from the Ravens at some point while this article was being written.  The last time Mike Shanahan kept more than 2 QBs was 2003, so Beck’s stay will likely be very brief.  He’ll get a chance to beat out Rex Grossman for the backup QB job, but when your one pro skill is the ability to limit interceptions, you’re more prone to hoping for Grossman to implode than making personal improvement.  This could be the end for fan favorite Colt Brennan, who’s jersey sales more than justified the use of a 6th round draft pick, even though he never took a regular season snap.

Injuries to Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter in Denver could affect the Redskins RB situation.  Washington and Denver are among the finalists for the services of veteran RB Brian Westbrook, who could see an increased offer from the Broncos.  If Westbrook doesn’t sign in Washington, Willie Parker still has a chance to make the roster.  Still, he might give way to the two prospects at RB.

The receiver position is a giant mess.  Santana Moss is safe.  Joey Galloway and Roydell Williams are competition with each other for a spot that could end up being the second receiver or third receiver spot.  One should make it, but both could at the expense of Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly.  The Redskins could cut both to make a statement.  Kelly should start if he can ever get healthy, but once this group of coaches gives up on him, that’s it for his career.  Thomas could be the beneficiary of one last chance.  Further down the depth chart, Terrence Austin — the teams 7th round pick — and Arena league pickup Anthony Armstrong will compete for the kick returner’s role, as well as the fifth receiver.

Mike Sellers could be on the fringe at fullback.  If the Redskins want to keep a fourth TE that isn’t Cooley, Davis, or 6th round pick Dennis Morris, Morris is capable of starting at FB this year.  Logan Paulsen could get Sellers’ spot on the roster as a blocking tight end.

The Redskins could keep up to ten offensive lineman in this rebuilding year, but have up to 11 worth keeping.  The backup tackles are Selvish Capers and Stephon Heyer.  The backup guards are Kory Lichtensteiger and Chad Rinehart.  The backup Centers (also learning guard) are Erik Cook and Edwin Williams.  One of those six will be released, and Cook and Capers have the security of being Shanahan draft picks.  My guess is that Williams is the release, but no one in this group should feel too safe.

Once Haynesworth becomes an active participant in the defense, the team will have to pick one defensive lineman to cut at the end of camp.  The easiest release would be Howard Green, projected right now to be the no. 2 nose tackle.  If he goes, Kedric Golston would pull double duty at backup right end and nose.  The depth here, including Daniels, Jarmon, Carriker, and Holliday is pretty impressive.  The inside linebacker position appears to have an upcoming roster crunch.  Either Chris Draft or Robert Henson is going to have to play elsewhere.  And there’s a possibility that neither makes it: that’s if Rob Jackson cracks the transition from DE to OLB.

The Redskins dealt CB Doug Dutch in the John Beck deal.  He wasn’t going to make the team anyway.  They do still have six cornerbacks, including Byron Westbrook, who seems like the easy cut if Brian doesn’t come to town.  Westbrook has a shot to win the roster spot of 2009 3rd round pick Kevin Barnes, who has been dreadful in camp picking up the defense.  As these guys struggle, Phillip Buchanon’s spot appears safe, especially since he can also return punts.  Justin Tryon is the nickel back, but in the event of injury to a starter, Buchanon will probably hop him into the starting lineup.

Lendy Holmes is a good player as a safety, who came off the practice squad to help the secondary last year.  But unless the Redskins do something with Chris Horton to move him to the linebacker group (as they probably should), Holmes doesn’t have a shot to crack a roster that includes LaRon Landry, Reed Doughty, and Kareem Moore competing for starting positions.

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