NFC East: Skye Dawson

Redskins vs. Bucs: What to watch for

August, 29, 2013
With just about every starter out for Thursday's preseason finale at 7:30 p.m. ET at Tampa Bay, is there much reason to be interested in this game? The biggest part of the night will be an examination of Robert Griffin III's right knee. If they televised that, it might draw higher ratings than the game. But they are going to play and we're going to watch, and this is what needs to be monitored:

How Brandon Meriweather looks. The Redskins need Meriweather to look like he’s ready to play a game and, thus far, they have not been convinced that is the case in practice. Every game he played last season, whether it was in the preseason or the one game against Philadelphia during the regular season, Meriweather made plays. There were breakups, hits and turnovers. If he’s not around the ball a lot; if he’s not making plays; then Meriweather might still be affected by his December ACL surgery.

Many happy returns? The Redskins could use another game with many punts, just to give them a better idea on certain players, such as rookie Chris Thompson. Two weeks ago he looked bad fielding punts; last week he did not -- he was patient and knows how to set up blocks. But those two fumbles from scrimmage loom large, as does his inexperience. Josh Morgan might get a surprise shot here, coach Mike Shanahan said Tuesday. But Morgan was a good punt returner at Virginia Tech, though he’s returned just one in the NFL. Skye Dawson has returned punts throughout the preseason and has done well since two bad returns in the opener (fumble, bad decision). Hard to imagine he’s done enough to warrant a roster spot.

Pat White. He’ll start and play the whole game, capping a summer of terrific opportunities. Thanks to Robert Griffin III’s knee, White received more time than he ordinarily would have as a fourth quarterback. It enabled him to showcase more of what he could do. Could he earn a spot here? Only as a fourth quarterback, and that seems like a big stretch. The Redskins are convinced he’ll be on someone’s roster -- is that legit or an attempt to possibly drum up trade interest (slight long shot). White is not close to where the others on the Redskins are as a quarterback. He has improved, but all he’s shown thus far is an ability to run (already known) and that he can hit the slant/dig route. He needs to show he can go through a progression; that he can consistently hit the out routes. White has definitely improved since we first saw him in spring workouts (when he looked like someone who should not even be invited to camp). He deserves a lot of credit, and I could see another team wanting him as a developmental No. 3. With two young quarterbacks already, the Redskins don’t need such a player, unless they already anticipate trading Kirk Cousins in the offseason (though how could you know that already; what if something happens to Griffin once again?) and want to groom another backup.

Secondary issues. At least those not named Meriweather. Josh Wilson will play, one of the few projected starters who will appear in the game (tight end Fred Davis was not yet scheduled to have the night off as of Tuesday; that's surprising, so we'll see if he actually plays or not). Wilson is coming off shoulder surgery and needs the work. Is there any way he loses his starting job? I can’t go there yet, because rookie David Amerson is still clearly learning lessons. But I can’t imagine Wilson has a stronghold on the position either. Why should he? Two guys to watch are cornerback Jerome Murphy and safety Jose Gumbs. Murphy has been a special teams standout, and fared well in limited time from scrimmage; he had a good camp, too. Gumbs is a hitter learning to play free safety. This is, perhaps, the most jumbled of all the positions because they also have Jordan Pugh and DeJon Gomes. Tough to see both making the roster, but it really could depend on the Bucs game.

Who has the big finale? There are players who can change their fate with a big showing in the final preseason game. A year ago Brandon Banks had 156 total yards against Tampa Bay -- 90 from scrimmage; 66 on punt returns -- to clinch a roster spot. Maybe he already had earned one, but this made it definite. Linebacker Robert Henson had a terrific final game in 2009 to jump ahead of fellow rookie linebacker Cody Glenn and earn a spot. A year later Henson lost his opportunity when he blew out his knee in the preseason finale. Who will have that sort of game Thursday night?

Running back battle. My best guess is that the Redskins keep four running backs, in addition to fullback Darrel Young. In that scenario Thompson makes it with Keiland Williams and Evan Royster vying for the final spot. Right now, I’d give Williams the edge. Rookie Jawan Jamison hasn’t done a whole lot this summer and appears to be a good candidate for the practice squad. And if they somehow lost him, oh well.

Receiver questions. Do they keep a sixth receiver? If so, would someone else other than Dez Briscoe be in that battle? Hard to imagine based on what we’ve seen in games and practice. Lance Lewis has a long way to go to be ready to make an NFL roster, and Dawson and Nick Williams both are more suited to the practice squad. What if Leonard Hankerson has a big game? Could he unseat Morgan as the Z receiver? I’d like to see a lot more consistency from Hankerson to make that happen. Morgan makes the tough catches that Hankerson has yet to prove he can make (not the one-handers, but the grabs over the middle when you’re about to be drilled).

Redskins roster battles: punt returner

August, 27, 2013
Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan joked that they had 14 players fielding punts in practice Monday, trying to find a replacement for injured Richard Crawford. It’s not quite that many, but the point remains: They’re not sure who will handle this job. Shanahan made it clear he does not mind putting a key player on offense or defense back deep, if they’re the best option. He also made it clear you can’t be a fumbler and handle this job. Not that many would think otherwise. Anyway, here’s my handicap of the situation:

Santana Moss: I wrote about him Monday. He’s the most reliable option because of his experience. He has a career 11.3-yard average, which is fantastic, but he has not handled this role full-time since 2004. And, in his last 51 returns, he’s averaged 8.6 yards, which is respectable. One issue with Moss over the years was durability. Coaches felt he got too worn down in the second half of seasons because he was doing too much, was getting older and did not train as well as they would have liked. He improved his offseason training last year, saving his job in Washington. But would being a full-time returner impact his effectiveness in the slot over the course of a season?

Chris Thompson: He has the least amount of experience in this role and as little as two weeks ago looked nothing close to being ready. Here's what he learned after some tough days in camp. But he also has a running style that works well on punt returns. I liked how after catching the ball on his last two punts, he paused after catching the ball, then made his move. He has not been a dancer with the ball. But can you trust him after he lost two fumbles from scrimmage? Unlike the other rookies on this list, Thompson could help from scrimmage on occasion.

Skye Dawson: He fumbled at the end of his first return and then made a poor decision to reverse field, losing yards, on his second. Since then, Dawson has been much better. On his third punt in the opener, he ran it 27 yards and in the following game against Pittsburgh he averaged 13.3 yards on four returns against Pittsburgh with a long of 24. Dawson was good, but not great, in this role at TCU. As a junior he managed just 59 yards on 12 returns -- and that was with a long of 42. A year later he averaged 9.4 yards per punt return. He had one return for 64 yards; on his other 16 returns he averaged six yards. He is fast -- he finished first in the indoor 60 meters championship in 2010 with the third fastest time in Mountain West history. But his track record is not spectacular by any means. And he does not look ready to contribute anywhere but as a punt returner.

Aldrick Robinson: Shanahan keeps calling him a possibility, though Robinson told a few reporters Monday that he would not be returning punts. He struggled two years ago in this role as a rookie, worked on fielding punts throughout the season while on the practice squad and showed little improvement a year ago.

DeAngelo Hall: He has returned 16 punts, but has fumbled four times. In three returns with Washington, he’s gained a combined minus-2 yards and fumbled twice.

Nick Williams: At Connecticut, he returned 52 punts for 470 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his scores came as a senior when he averaged 12.0 yards on 21 returns. He had a long of 80 yards, but still averaged 8.65 yards on the other 20. But, as with Dawson, could he help you at all from scrimmage? That’s tough to see. One of these two, or both, will end up on the practice squad.

Is Josh Cribbs an option? No. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be. The Redskins never really showed much interest in him this offseason in part because they just didn’t have the salary cap room, one team official said. But Arizona rescinded its offer to him because Cribbs, coming off knee surgery, couldn’t pass a physical and other teams (the Jets) did not look at him for the same reason. Those who watched him in Oakland this summer say he did not look fast. When the Raiders cut you, it’s not a good sign. The Redskins still are tight against the cap, but money is not the only issue with Cribbs. It's possible the eventual punt returner is not on the roster so Saturday's cuts by the other 31 teams could play a vital role for Washington.
Maybe it was out of need; maybe it was about finding a gem. Most likely it was a little of both. Regardless, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has kept an undrafted free agent in two of his first three camps in Washington. It’ll be tougher this year because the Redskins are deeper than they were in 2010 when tight end Logan Paulsen, returner Brandon Banks and running back Keiland Williams all made the cut. A year later tackle Willie Smith made the roster. Paulsen has developed into a solid blocker and Williams, noted for his special teams play, is on the bubble. Banks and Smith are gone.

Last season? Nobody made it -- though if Chase Minnifield had stayed healthy he would have. Then again, if he had been healthy before the draft he'd have been a third-round pick at worst. The Redskins had drafted 21 players in 2011 and ’12 combined, making it tougher for an undrafted free agent to earn a spot. It’ll be more of the same this year, but here’s a breakdown of this year’s group:
  1. Receivers: Skye Dawson (TCU), Nick Williams (Connecticut), Chip Reeves (Troy). Dawson impressed in training camp with his quickness and sharp cuts, leading to success in one-on-one drills vs. cornerbacks (a drill set up for receivers to look good). When they got to 11-on-11 work, Dawson did not show up as much. He’s one of four players who worked at kick returner Tuesday, along with Niles Paul, Evan Royster and Williams. So Dawson and Williams will have a chance to make noise more so than Reeves. Both still have a long way to go.
  2. Linebackers: Will Compton (Nebraska), Melvin Burdette (UAB) and Jeremy Kimbrough (Appalachian State). None of them have flashed in a big way during training camp, though it’s obvious that Kimbrough, arrives with some pop, something the coaches have noticed. He’s listed at 5-foot-11, which might be a little generous. The Redskins need depth inside, but several players are ahead of this group. It’ll be tough for anyone here. But it’s always good to stash a young linebacker or two on practice squad.
  3. Tight ends: Emmanuel Ogbuehi (Georgia State). He will not make the roster simply because the four guys ahead of him will (provided they all stay healthy). And even if one of them gets hurt the Redskins likely would go with three tight ends and keep an extra player elsewhere. Ogbuehi’s hands aren’t the most consistent, but he is athletic – he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds and has a 35-inch vertical. He has decent strength. He’s the definition of raw.
  4. Offensive line: tackle Xavier Nixon (Florida), guards Jacolby Ashworth (Houston) and Tevita Stevens (Utah). Nixon has a name because he played at Florida, but he has a long ways to go. He is just not ready to play tackle (he’s worked on the left side) in the NFL and would ideally need at least a year on practice squad (or more). Ashworth and Stevens are behind players the Redskins drafted a year ago (Josh LeRibeus and Adam Gettis, both of whom still project to backups). All three of these undrafteds are major longshots.