On the eve of the Washington Redskins' preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Jones of The Washington Post takes a look at some of the position battles being fought on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is taking the outwardly optimistic approach on these:
"I'm excited because I think we have a lot better competition," the 31-year-old Shanahan says. "Last year, we kind of knew who our guys were a little. We were trying to figure out our team and stuff. The depth wasn't there. We have better depth this year and there's going to be some competition there from the first quarter all the way to the fourth."
Fair enough. The pessimistic side of that coin would be that the competition results from the lack of quality on the roster, rather than a preponderance of depth. But Shanahan's job is to mold, not to mope, so let's take a look at what he's looking at as the preseason gets underway.
Quarterback: Looks as though Rex Grossman will get the start Friday night and John Beck's groin injury will keep him from being a factor in the first preseason game. Kellen Clemens should play some Friday, and surely he'd love to get himself into the competition. Remember, Clemens thought he was going to be the Jets' starter two straight offseasons before being supplanted first by Brett Favre and then by Mark Sanchez. Shanahan and his head-coach father have presented this as a competition between Beck and Grossman, and the sense I got while there was that they really wanted to see if Beck could handle it. But if Beck and his groin are going to linger, and if Grossman doesn't impress, how crazy is it to imagine Clemens getting into the discussion?
Running back: Another injury here, as Ryan Torain is out with a broken hand and Tim Hightower, who's the favorite to win the starter's job, will get the chance to show he can hold onto the ball with his two good ones. Mike Shanahan loves Hightower as a one-cut runner, as a pass-catcher, as a goal-line back and as a pass-blocker. The only hangup is the fumbles, which were a problem in Arizona and showed up early in camp this year. Expect to see rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster a lot, and if Hightower does fumble, there's certainly opportunity there for the youngsters while Torain sits out.
Wide receiver: Who will start opposite Santana Moss? Right now, they're listing Jabar Gaffney as the starter, but it's clear that Anthony Armstrong and Donte' Stallworth have a chance to grab the spot. Rookie Leonard Hankerson is a player they like a lot but consider a project. Fellow rookies Niles Paul and Aldrick Robinson are likely to see action, too, and it sounds as if Paul has played well in recent practices. My guess is that Armstrong plays well this preseason and goes into the season as the No. 2 receiver. But that's just a guess, and if he doesn't pay well there are plenty of guys to take the spot from him
Tight end: The Chris Cooley injury would be a bigger worry if they didn't have Fred Davis backing him up, but they are better when they have both, and they won't have Cooley for this game. It'll be interesting to see how much the tight end is used as a pass-catcher in Washington's offense this year. Sure, the receiving corps could use the help, but the offensive line could use some blocking help as well. My guess is Cooley and Davis will do a lot of blocking.
Of course we'll be watching to see how the offensive line plays, because there are question marks there. But there aren't really position battles there. It looks as though the starting five is set and just needs time to jell together. How much time it takes -- and whether it happens at all this year or ever will -- is not a question that can be answered in one or even four preseason games. These other questions, though, will start to find their answers Friday night.