NFC East: Florida State

Two weeks ago in training camp, rookie Chris Thompson struggled to catch punts. He misjudged the flight, reached up awkwardly to his side when trying to corral one and didn’t look smooth catching others. He knew it too.

“I was frustrated because I couldn’t read the ball that day,” Thompson said.

But he received help from the other returners. Richard Crawford, Nick Williams and Skye Dawson all gave him tips on how to catch punts. It’s not necessarily an art form, but there is a difference between fielding kickoffs and punts. Thompson occasionally fielded punts during practices at Florida State, but never returned one in a game, just kickoffs.

[+] EnlargeChris Thompson
AP Photo/Nick WassChris Thompson knows his versatility can improve his chances of landing a roster spot.
Some of the differences are obvious: Punts are more unpredictable, both in terms of where they’re going and how long they’ll be. There’s also a chance the returner might get drilled upon catching the ball. So instant decision making is important. As a kick returner, the big decision is whether or not to run it out of the end zone -- and coaches often tell them beforehand what they want. The upback can help in that decision, too. For punt returners, it’s an in-the-moment decision.

But the ball arrives differently as well. Kickoffs are end over end and easy to read. Punts come off the foot differently and can rotate in more ways.

“You have to be able to read where it’s going or if it’s going to fall short,” Thompson said.

It can take time. But Thompson did a good job of this versus Buffalo. He ran up at least 10 yards to field one punt; drifted back to catch another and moved back and to the side on a third. All were fielded smoothly. It’s a start.

“I was actually surprised myself,” Thompson said on how well he caught the ball. “Crawford had been doing a great job just helping me out every single day.”

Thompson, though, has fumbled twice in the preseason on runs from scrimmage. Ball security and decision making trump speed when it comes to returning punts. Thompson said coach Mike Shanahan told him after his fumble against Buffalo that, “I don’t care how good you are, if you put the ball on the ground you’re not going to play.”

But if Thompson does end up returning punts, then you can credit the other returners, Crawford in particular, for an assist. Thompson knows this could be a way to ensure a roster spot, too. His open-field running style, the ability to be patient yet cut sharply and set up blocks, works well on punt returns. He could get more chances Thursday at Tampa Bay to prove he's a viable option.

“Coaches brought me here not just to be a running back,” he said. “I know that’s one more thing I can hopefully add to this team.”

Redskins rookie report: Chris Thompson

August, 22, 2013
His game film provided highlights of electric runs and flashy plays. The Redskins want a little more of both in their offense so they selected Florida State running back Chris Thompson in the fifth round. But Thompson can only help if healthy. Can he do so in the NFL?

What he’s learning: How to run at an NFL level as well as how to pass protect. Thompson has the speed; just take a look at his college film. He had mixed reviews against the Steelers, with a good first run and then fumbling on his second. He could have helped himself on the fumble by pressing the hole just a little longer, but because he cut back early the safety was in good position to fill the hole and hit him hard. That can be corrected by staying patient (which running backs coach Bobby Turner preaches; it’s an absolute must in this offense). Like fellow rookie Jawan Jamison, he can duck behind his blockers at times to sort of get lost in the crowd, making it hard for defenders to see -- and use his short stature to his advantage. Thompson said he’s not struggling with the track he must take on runs, something Alfred Morris needed to work on early last year, because it’s similar to what he ran at Florida State. It’s more about the tempo.

“Too fast or the [the hole] is closing up or just missing reads here and there,” Thompson said of what he’s learning. “I go back and look at film and try to correct it every day.”

“He shows signs of what we’re expecting,” Turner said.

Thompson also is learning how to pass protect at an NFL level. Check the next topic for the physical demands of that role, but for now it’s about learning how to read blitzes. In college, Thompson was only responsible for half the field. Here, he’d be responsible for the entire field.

Finally, Thompson has to learn how to be a returner. He said he was going to get a chance to return kickoffs against Pittsburgh, but did not. He did return kicks at Florida State early in his career. He also has been fielding punts in practice, though he never did it in college (except in practice) and, based on how he was catching the ball, has a long ways to go.

[+] EnlargeChris Thompson
Steve Helber/AP PhotoChris Thompson's big-play ability is something that could help land him a spot on the Redskins' roster.
“The punters, their hang time is ridiculous at this level,” he said. “Kickoffs are a whoooole lot easier.”

What needs to be seen: Durability. Thompson missed much of training camp while recovering from knee surgery last fall. He then hurt his shoulder against Pittsburgh on his second carry. He’s listed at 5-foot-7 and 192 pounds, so his size always will draw concerns. But two years ago he broke his back and last year tore his ACL. Those can be considered freak injuries and not the nagging sort that derail some players. But even Thompson admitted he has to show he won’t be affected by his knee injury. The Redskins just ended a three-year run with pint-sized Brandon Banks, who struggled to maintain his explosiveness because of injury issues. I like Thompson's character a whole lot more, and if the Redskins truly were worried about his size they wouldn't have drafted him. But if you can't stay healthy, that' s an issue. The one benefit for Thompson is that he won’t be an every-down back in Washington; the Redskins need him to be a change-of-pace back. Still, if he plays on third downs he’ll have to prove he can handle blitz pickups. The physics of the job -- small running back meets bigger hard-charging linebacker -- can be difficult. In college, Thompson was not asked to handle much of the protection duties, especially as a senior. He did block a linebacker on one rush, hitting him low.

“I have confidence I can block anybody,” Thompson said. “I can do whatever a coach needs me to do. If he wants me to carry it 20, 30 times I can do it. Size doesn’t mean a thing. DeSean Jackson is like 160 pounds and he’s been doing great. It’s confidence. If you listen so much about people saying you’re too small and you just need to be a third-down back or catching balls out of the backfield, that’s what you’re gonna believe. I don’t believe that. I believe I can do anything.”

What stands out: His speed and quickness. That was true watching his games at Florida State in particular and at times during training camp workouts. The tough part is we only saw it in snippets because he missed all that time and was admittedly not quite yet himself. But that speed is evident, as is his ability to quickly cut. It was shown on his 8-yard run in the fourth quarter versus Pittsburgh. He ran an outside zone and was able to string the outside linebacker wider than desired. The impressive part? Thompson’s cut. He stuck his right foot in the ground and cut upfield. In about three steps Thompson executed his cut and got about 3 or 4 yards upfield. Some backs shuffle a little when they cut; he did not on this play. His size did not hurt him here either because the defense was flowing, no one was in the hole and nobody had a good angle on him so there was no clean shot. Instead, he could burrow into the opening and gain another 5 or 6 yards after contact.

“He has outstanding speed, cutting ability, ability to make the big plays and that’s what we’re looking for, to make the big plays,” Turner said.

Projection: Practice squad, assuming they keep only three running backs and a fullback. Thompson is a tough call because I know the coaches really like what he has to offer. Right now I’d take three other backs -- Morris, Roy Helu, Evan Royster -- ahead of him because I don’t see Thompson helping in any sort of big role at this point and his durability is a major issue. He’d be a Banks-type player if he makes the team, a threat in their triple-option game, etc. But Banks made the roster by making big plays; Thompson needs to do the same. However, if they keep four running backs (plus a fullback) then he has a shot because of his explosiveness. I also think Thompson’s status could change dramatically with one or two runs Saturday. But you can’t fumble after the first time you get popped -- and also hurt your shoulder (though he did return).

Redskins rookie report: Brandon Jenkins

August, 15, 2013
RICHMOND, Va. -- The Redskins said, and still say, that if Florida State’s Brandon Jenkins had stayed healthy last season, he would have been drafted much higher than the fifth round. He recorded 22.5 sacks in college, including 13.5 as a sophomore in 2010 when he played at a lighter weight.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Jenkins
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Jenkins is still knocking off the rust after missing almost the entire 2012 season due to injury.
What he’s learning: What moves work. Jenkins showed a variety of moves in college and has done the same in training camp. Not all moves succeed, however, as he’s discovered -- and some might work against the third-team tackle, but not the starter. It’s about timing and where to place his hands. When working against the starting line recently, he started a spin move too early and a little too upright, which allowed tackle Tyler Polumbus to easily react and block his move. In other practices, Jenkins has timed it up well, closing the gap between he and the tackle, dipping his right shoulder into the outside shoulder of the tackle and curling back inside for pressure. Other times instead of spinning on a direct path he’d round off a bit too much and lose ground. Or you could see him thinking about a move and cutting inside too early, without as much initial burst, and get denied. There’s a natural feel to his game. There’s also a natural rust to his game after suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his left foot in the 2012 season opener, which is why Jenkins said he’s still “getting in a groove.” He worked out with former FSU teammates Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine in the offseason, focusing on hand and agility drills.

Jenkins also is getting used to adjusting to the snap counts. In the preseason opener he jumped early on a play because of a hard count. He still managed to get wide on the tackle, but it served as a reminder. He jumped early in practice this week thanks to a hard count.

“The snap count is a lot harder,” he said. “You have to be disciplined if you’re trying to jump the snap. The quarterbacks will try to trip you up; that’s one thing that’s real big. It’s all about the takeoffs. If you get a good takeoff then good things will happen from there.”

But it shouldn’t be about the snap count.

"You’ve got to see the ball," said linebackers coach Bob Slowik. “If you anticipate too much he’ll be offsides about eight times .... He has a great get-off and he was really instinctive and natural in his rush. He’s trying to find out what works the best against big, long, athletic tackles.”

What needs to be seen: The ability to be an all-around linebacker. That means learning to drop into coverage, but don’t expect to see that a lot (even though he did do it against Tennessee last week at least once). While Jenkins dropped once in a while at Florida State, it’s much different now. It’s not a matter of his athleticism, it’s about knowing where to drop against different looks. Jenkins said he needs to be able to read the quarterback’s eyes better and also must get to his spot with urgency.

“You can drop to your spot and the quarterback already throws the ball at you,” Jenkins said. “It’s real quick. You have to be detail-oriented.”

It’s a lot to absorb.

"He’s natural at it, but it’s the volume of the defense he’s trying to grasp," Slowik said, “and then to go out and execute those calls at full speed with confidence and reacting to the offense at the same time.

“If he tries to grasp the whole package then it will slow down his pass rushes. That’s what we’re working on the most.”

What stands out: His burst. Jenkins must refine his game to become a quality pass-rusher, but he shows flashes most days of his ability. Many others have done the same in the past. The trick is to develop that talent and that’s what Jenkins must do. Jenkins, who weighed 270 pounds as a junior, now weighs 250. At 270, he looked a little less fluid and not as quick. At 250, which is around what he weighed as a sophomore, the fluidity has returned. He’s not always successful, but a lot of that stems from technique and timing.

“He has that short area quickness,” Slowik said. “Very quick off the ball. He might not be the fastest 40-yard time, but he’s very good in 10 yards and very good in change of direction.”

Projection: He should make the roster based on his potential and also on the fact that another reserve outside linebacker, Rob Jackson, will be suspended for the first four games. They need depth here early and also have veteran Darryl Tapp as a backup. But Jenkins also has worked with the first unit in nickel situations during the first preseason game as well as in practice. He would be used the great majority of the time as a situational rusher.