NFL Nation: DeSean Jackson
Jay Gruden only had two quarterbacks in each of his three seasons with Cincinnati, but Griffin still needs to prove his durability. If something happened to him, they woulld still be in good shape with Cousins and McCoy. If they go with two then McCoy gets left off.
Running backs (4)
The Redskins could also stash Chris Thompson on the practice squad as further insurance. Thompson can easily bump himself onto the roster with a good summer; he’s a good fit in Gruden’s offense and the new coach liked Thompson coming out of college. But durability is an issue. By keeping four here, the Redskins can go with an extra player at another spot. This means Evan Royster is on the outs, but he doesn’t give the Redskins anything they don’t have in better players. He is insurance only.
I am not cutting Leonard Hankerson, rather I’m just not sold that he will be on the active roster at the start of the season. If he shows this summer that he can play, then, yes, I would have him on the 53-man roster. But the Redskins were not sure what to expect from him and when he might be healthy. Therefore, I can see him taking a little longer to return. Gruden likes Moss and they drafted Grant. Robinson needs to take a step.
Tight ends (3)
Rookie tight end Ted Bolser would head to the practice squad, where he can develop. He didn’t look close to a roster spot just based on how he looked this spring. Reed is firmly entrenched as the starter with Paulsen their top blocker and Paul a special teams ace.
Offensive line (10)
- Trent Williams
- Shawn Lauvao
- Kory Lichtensteiger
- Chris Chester
- Tyler Polumbus
- Morgan Moses
- Spencer Long
- Josh LeRibeus
- Tom Compton
- Mike McGlynn
In reality, I could see them keeping only nine offensive linemen. It all depends on how Long and/or LeRibeus looks at guard. They love Long -- Gruden has said he could compete immediately -- so if he shows he can play, then they could cut Chester. Compton is a little surprise, but they like him as well. This position will be fluid and I’m not sold on the 10 I have listed.
Defensive line (6)
This one is fluid as well because it depends in part on Bowen’s health. I like Chris Neild and so do they, but can they keep him? Golston is more versatile and a key player on special teams, but he’s also 30 and they must get younger.
- Ryan Kerrigan
- Brian Orakpo
- Perry Riley
- Keenan Robinson
- Trent Murphy
- Darryl Sharpton
- Adam Hayward
- Brandon Jenkins
- Akeem Jordan
As of now I’d have Rob Jackson out, especially if Jenkins develops as a pass-rusher. But this will be a close race. And I have them keeping an extra guy inside in Hayward because of his special teams ability.
Chase Minnifield remains eligible for the practice squad. Richard Crawford is coming off a knee injury and it’s hard to place him on here without seeing him play. The one benefit for Crawford is that he can play in the slot; they need depth at that spot.
I really don’t feel good about this position and am not confident that I have this one right, at least for that final spot. Robinson’s special teams ability gives him the edge over Bacarri Rambo, who must have a strong camp. Akeem Davis can help on special teams, but with no NFL experience he will be stashed on the practice squad.
The Forbath selection is based on never having seen rookie Zach Hocker kick in an NFL game. If Hocker is consistent this summer and shows a strong leg, then he can win the job.
NFL Nation's Phil Sheridan examines the three biggest issues facing the Philadelphia Eagles heading into training camp.
Can Nick Foles repeat, even improve on, his 2013 success? A year ago, Foles went into camp trailing Michael Vick in the starting quarterback competition that Vick eventually won. After leading the NFL in passer rating, throwing 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions, Foles has a pretty high bar to clear in his first full season as a starter. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Foles to be further from perfect than he was in 2013. But Foles can do that while still being very productive. If he throws a few more interceptions by taking some risks that also produce more touchdowns or big plays, the Eagles can live with that. Foles could even raise his game to an even higher level. It won't be easy, but with a coach like Chip Kelly, it's not out of the question, either. Foles looked very sharp -- accurate and confident -- during June practices. He seems buoyed, not intimidated or cowed, by being the clear No. 1 QB ahead of Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. Training camp and the preseason will give everyone a chance to see whether he's making progress or heading toward a major regression. Best guess: Foles will be fine. Not otherworldly, but just fine.
Who will replace DeSean Jackson's production? That became the Eagles' most urgent question after Kelly decided to part ways with the guy who caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. Since we have no evidence Kelly is a madman, we have to conclude the coach had reason to believe he could get Jackson's production from other players. Jeremy Maclin was never the big-play guy that Jackson was, but he is a solid receiver who is hugely motivated to prove he can excel after a second ACL tear. Riley Cooper may come back to the pack a bit after his breakout 2013 season, but he also might rise to the occasion after experiencing success. The Eagles' additions are intriguing. Darren Sproles figures to be as versatile and unpredictable under Kelly as he was in New Orleans for Sean Payton. Second-round draft pick Jordan Matthews had people at organized team activities comparing his physique to that of Terrell Owens and could be a star in the future. Meanwhile, tight end Zach Ertz is expected to take that key second-season leap in production and reliability. Would the Eagles have been better with Jackson? Probably. Can they be as successful with strong seasons from Maclin, Sproles, Matthews, Cooper and Ertz? Kelly clearly thinks so.
Did the Eagles do enough to improve their defense? Looked at one way, the answer seems like a big "no." The Eagles didn't go out and sign a star defensive back or draft an elite, quarterback-eating pass-rusher. It would be easier to sell this defense if they had. What the Eagles are counting on is an across-the-board rise in experience and comfort in Bill Davis' defense. That isn't as glittery as marquee free agents or high draft picks, but it may prove to be more reliable than either of those. And there is some foundation for hope. The Eagles' defense really did improve over the course of the 2013 season. It looked a lot better in December than in September, and that is why the Eagles may have more new starters on offense than on defense. The front seven looks like it will be the same as it was at the end of 2013. First-round pick Marcus Smith will play as he proves he's ready, but there is no reason to rush him when Trent Cole is playing as well as he did last season. Malcolm Jenkins is a smart and reliable safety, and that should help the secondary immeasurably. The best guess is the starting cornerbacks return. If not, it will be because Nolan Carroll shows that he is better than one of them.
Overall, the Eagles added a bunch of players who will push last year's starters. If they're better, they'll see the field. If not, it will mean the incumbents have fended off the challenge. Either way, the defense should be better.
As he improved his tracks on runs, the Redskins’ run game flourished even more. Morris’ ability to plant and cut and make the first defender miss meant the run game would work even minus the zone read aspect.
Last season, the Redskins ranked third in the NFL in yards per rush (4.78). They averaged 5.33 yards on zone read carries and 4.65 on traditional runs; the latter number would have left them tied for third.
Here’s the point: The run game has worked the past two years, with or without the zone read option. That’s a big reason why offensive coordinator Sean McVay said shortly after getting his new position that “the run game will be very similar.”
Meanwhile, the two linemen they drafted, guard Spencer Long and tackle Morgan Moses, both can move. The problem for Moses is that in college he was inconsistent getting to linebackers in the run game. It’s yet another area he must improve before he’s truly ready to start. Long, nearly 10 pounds heavier than starting right guard Chris Chester, spent a lot of time pulling at Nebraska but he also plays with strength. The Redskins definitely left yards on the field in the run game last season, sometimes because the backside blockers failed to get their men and other times because Morris needed to make a stronger cut down the field.
On paper, bigger should also equal more ability to play smash mouth when needed, adding more versatility to the ground game. But I’m not sold that Lauvao, for example, is as strong in that sort of situation. That’s not what he showed in Cleveland (whether at the line or when reaching linebackers).
Meanwhile, the Redskins actually led the NFL in rushing versus seven-man fronts (275 times for an NFL-best 1,332 yards).
Perhaps Gruden’s influence will result in more carries against five- and six-man fronts. The Bengals had 51 more such plays than Washington a year ago, a function of formation and likely also game situations. Then again, two years ago the Redskins had more runs against those fronts than Cincinnati.
But with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and tight end Jordan Reed, Gruden has more weapons in the pass game as well. Which, of course, could lead to more spread formations -- and runs against even more favorable fronts.
The point? Helu will be able to handle the third-down duties again, but there’s little reason to take a whole lot away from Morris. And rookie Lache Seastrunk has a lot to prove -- as a third-down back in particular -- before being ready for anything other than pinch-hitting duty as a runner. But he’s a potentially good fit in the spread. Chris Thompson is, too, but size and durability remain two big issues for him.
Do not assume the Redskins will see fewer eight-man boxes compared to last season. In 2013, Morris only ran 44 times against an eight-man box, which was six fewer times than he did so as a rookie. So it’s not a given he’ll pile up more yards because of fewer eight-man boxes. But given the success of the past two years and that Gruden wants to keep it mostly the same, there’s also no reason to think Morris or the Redskins’ run game will suddenly drop off. That is, unless Gruden falls too much in love with the weapons at receiver.
As the Dallas Cowboys and Dez Bryant look for ways to come to an agreement on a long-term deal so they can avoid any franchise-tag hassle next offseason, can Graham’s deal be something of a barometer for Bryant?
But I digress. Let’s just look at the statistical comparisons of Bryant and Graham. Both players were selected in the 2010 draft. Bryant was a first-round pick, so he has an extra year on his rookie deal. Graham was a third-round pick.
In the past three seasons their numbers are fairly similar.
Bryant: 248 catches, 3,543 yards, 34 touchdowns.
Graham: 270 catches, 3,507 yards, 36 touchdowns.
Any discussions between the Cowboys and Bryant’s agent, Eugene Parker, have been kept under wraps for the most part. Most of the figures thrown around have been by the media. There are seven wide receivers with an average annual value of at least $10 million: Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson.
Marshall, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson have at least $20 million in guaranteed money in their deals, as does Andre Johnson, who is threatening a holdout from the Houston Texans' training camp.
Graham’s contract puts him in line with receivers if not with the top-paid guys like Johnson ($16.2 million), Fitzgerald ($16.1 million). Harvin ($12.9 million) and Wallace ($12 million) who cashed in during free agency. Bowe averages $11.2 million. The Washington Redskins signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $24 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed in the offseason.
So where does Bryant fit in? Should he get Graham’s $10 million average or play out the season and possibly get tagged (that was $12.3 million in 2014)?
There is some middle ground in which both sides can compromise, but Graham's deal could help define just where that ground is, even if he is a tight end (wink, wink).
But with a new staff, a quarterback more like himself and with a full offseason and better receivers, the Redskins’ passing attack should improve. Of course, there have been many times in the past that an aspect of the Redskins should have improved and did not. Quarterback Robert Griffin III has maintained all along that nothing has yet been accomplished. He is absolutely right.
One veteran offensive player said what helps is that Jay Gruden’s passing game is similar to what Washington ran under Kyle Shanahan. It also helps that the coaches say the run game will be the same. Still, it’s a new offense that Griffin and the others must learn.
The Redskins have devoted 15.57 percent of their cap space to receiver -- that’s 36.05 percent more than the average NFL team.
Also, the feeling, for now at least, is that the Redskins will rely less on play-action passes than they did in the past. The Redskins averaged an NFL-best 11.85 yards per pass attempt from play-action in 2012; they averaged 6.97 yards per attempt last season, 26th in the NFL. By comparison, Cincinnati ranked 12th last season at 8.22 yards per pass attempt from play-action (all statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information).
However, the Bengals definitely ran it less: they ranked 19th in the NFL with only 47.6 yards per game out of play-action looks. The Redskins, meanwhile, were ninth at 70.3 yards per game.
The sense is that the Redskins won’t need to use it as much because of an improved receiving corps, one that is much more capable of winning one-on-one battles at the line (unlike last season). Therefore, in theory, it should result in quicker opportunities for Griffin. That will allow the Redskins to use less complicated reads until Griffin and the receivers grow in the offense. Without the benefit of a regular offseason a year ago, the Redskins could not expand the offense under Griffin the way they would have liked. When they tried to, it did not work for a variety of reasons.
Griffin has had a good offseason and, the veteran said, has done a good job of picking up the offense. But the fact remains that this is his first legitimate NFL offseason and he’s learning a second offense. Don’t complicate matters (even if every NFL offense is complex). This should allow him to be more decisive and play to his strengths, which should include throwing the deep ball.
A lot of this depends on how well the protection holds up. If it doesn't, then play-action can be used more often.
Gruden inherited different talent offensively than he had in Cincinnati. The Bengals did not have a workhorse runner as good as Alfred Morris. They did not have the depth among the receiving talent Washington now appears to have (including tight end Jordan Reed). Of course, the Bengals did have other weapons: receiver A.J. Green, one of the game’s best; running back Giovani Bernard, good at running from the spread and catching passes out of the backfield.
Griffin is a different threat than Andy Dalton. Griffin, obviously, is more mobile but he also has a stronger arm and should be more dangerous throwing downfield. But keep in mind that Cincinnati led the NFL with 83 pass attempts on passes that traveled at least 20 yards or more (the Redskins had 60 such attempts) but were 16th in completion percentage (37.3 percent) and 13th in yards per attempt (12.83). Again, if Griffin is sharper, then it would help here: The Redskins ranked second in the NFL in yards per pass attempt on these plays in 2012 (though they were 31st in number of passes attempted). Last season, the Redskins ranked 26th in completion percentage (28.3) and 25th in yards per attempt (9.92). With Jackson, a healthy Reed and an improved Griffin, I would expect both numbers to improve by a decent amount.
Also, what we have learned thus far about Gruden is that he will adjust. Well, actually, all we know is that he says he will adapt. That is why he is leaving the same run game in place, knowing it has been effective. Though some aspects of his offense have to remain the same -- you need core beliefs -- he can’t, and shouldn’t, ask Griffin to be Dalton.
The Redskins need Griffin to be Griffin again. They have the receivers to help him get there; they definitely need the line to help as well. Otherwise, a lot of what the Redskins hope to do -- and want to do -- will have to change.
Date: Dec. 19, 2010 Site: New Giants Stadium
After the deeply frustrating exercise of picking three plays from the long history of the Philadelphia Eagles as the most memorable in franchise history, I could never second-guess the voters who selected the most recent "Miracle of the Meadowlands" play as No. 1.
It was a narrow vote, with DeSean Jackson's 65-yard, game-winning punt return edging out Herm Edwards' improbable game-winning fumble recovery in the 1978 "miracle" game. The bigger surprise was how far behind (9 percent of the vote) Wilbert Montgomery's touchdown run in the 1980 NFC title game finished.
But I think this gets at the issue pretty directly. Our top three had zero plays by Randall Cunningham or Donovan McNabb, zero by Reggie White or Brian Dawkins, zero by Chuck Bednarik or Steve Van Buren. And yet, every one of those players made any number of plays worthy of consideration.
When you see fans voting for great plays that led to championships, it’s a painful reminder that the Eagles haven’t won one of those since 1960. In their victory against the Green Bay Packers that season, Bednarik made a game-saving tackle of Jim Taylor. That play probably belonged on the short list, too, but how many fans have even seen it at this point?
Meanwhile, Jackson’s "miracle" return at the new Giants’ stadium in East Rutherford was voted best play in NFL history a couple years ago. That is pretty hard to ignore, even if you allow for the impact of Youtube and social media and being on an endless loop on SportsCenter.
Bednarik didn’t have any of that. Neither did Randall or Reggie. So what makes a play unforgettable?
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders have spoken.
Avant signed with the Carolina Panthers. This week, he told the Charlotte Observer that he knew his days as a Kelly employee were numbered “maybe four games into last season. When they stop calling your number and guys start running some of the routes that you run – I knew from the beginning that I didn’t fit his style of offense, in that I’m a crafty guy that gets open in an atypical way.”
There isn’t much to see here, actually. There is nothing remarkable, really, about a coach shaping his roster to fit his vision for how the game should be played. Kelly made some changes immediately upon taking over the Eagles last year, but it takes a little time to remake an entire football program. Especially when that program had been run the same way for 15 years.
“When it came to certain things,” Avant told the Observer, “we butted heads sometimes – route running and route technique. So I knew I didn’t fit his system.”
Avant was a good soldier and did his part to help smooth the transition from Reid to Kelly. That is even more admirable when you learn that he was doing so with the knowledge he wouldn’t be here when it all came together.
Still, Avant’s comments do shed a bit more light on the Jackson situation. If the oldest, most respected leader among the wide receivers didn’t see eye to eye with Kelly, that suggests Jackson wasn’t totally on board, either. Jackson, like Avant, was steeped in Reid’s approach to the game. Clearly, that approach differs from Kelly’s.
All of that supports the theory that Kelly released Jackson because he didn’t really buy in to what the coach was trying to build here.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But Kelly immediately put pressure on himself to replace the departed talent without taking a step backward. The early signs are good. Jordan Matthews, Darren Sproles and Josh Huff seem like pieces that Kelly can plug in without missing a beat. The Eagles will have to deal with Jackson twice a year while he’s in Washington, but they won’t see Avant again unless it’s in the playoffs.
If there’s any head butting going on then, it will be on the field.
2. During pass-rush drills, he reminded the players, “don't let them control your body! Keep your elbows tight!” It's a point of emphasis. At one point, he told rookie Trent Murphy, “Give me one good one 93; I need one good one before we move on!” Murphy gave it to him. Baker worked with players on where their hands should be on the blocker at the snap (obviously not low, but he worked on getting the hands right before the snap, too). Baker: “You can't let him get into your chest. The closer you are the higher you put your hands.”
4. I don't know what sort of difference one outside linebackers coach can make, but I also know it can't be overlooked. He's a legit coach.
5. Redskins coach Jay Gruden incorporated more of his coaches in special teams drills. It's not as if other coaches in past years did nothing here, but it was noticeable this past week. Secondary coach Raheem Morris worked with the flyers in punt coverage while receivers coach Ike Hilliard showed them how to get off a jam. Baker helped with the tackling drills. Gruden said it enables special teams coach Ben Kotwica to get more out of his allotted 10-15 minutes. There is a definite increased emphasis on special teams, starting from early in the offseason.
6. The Redskins now know they'll face quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener against Houston. Not sure it's a big surprise and not sure it really matters. Fitzpatrick was 9-5 as a starter from Nov. 14, 2010 to Oct. 30, 2011 -- that includes the 23-0 shutout of Washington. Since then, Fitzpatrick is 10-23 as a starter. Of course, his first NFL start came against Washington, a 24-9 loss while with Cincinnati in 2005. Fitzpatrick has thrown 106 touchdown passes to 93 interceptions in his career.
7. Three months later DeSean Jackson remains a big topic in Philadelphia. It started, again, with running back LeSean McCoy saying Jackson's release caught everyone's attention. It let them know if you don't buy in, you will be cut. Kelly refuted that notion. “I don't send messages to other players by how I deal with other players,” Kelly told Eagles reporters. “And how LeSean McCoy interprets things … LeSean has a beautiful mind. Sometimes trying to analyze that mind I don't wrap myself around that too much. Or bother myself too much with that. However LeSean interprets things is how LeSean interprets things.” The Eagles do think they have enough speedminus Jackson to still thrive.
8. There was a big to-do over the Patriots having a Jets playbook and that led to a discussion over whether it made a difference. Some who have covered the NFL a long time insist it means nothing; others who have covered it a long time insist it does. With players switching teams all the time, I doubt it's a big secret what's in various playbooks and coaches study so much tape that there shouldn't be many surprises. The bigger issue is when you know another coach's tendencies. I say that because some coaches here in the past felt that part of the success they had against Giants quarterback Eli Manning stemmed from having their playbook. But it also helped that they felt offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride didn't change a whole lot. Tendencies mattered more.
9. One player who must have a strong year for Dallas: cornerback Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys traded up to get him with the sixth overall pick in 2012, but his impact has been poor. Claiborne has picked off two passes, has battled nagging injuries and lost his starting job last year. This is the time of year for player optimism and Claiborne is no different. Everyone is saying the right things about Claiborne, as you would expect. But they like that he's competing. One nugget: Claiborne pulled a rookie corner off the field in order to face receiver Dez Bryant in practice. "Me and him talked about it before we even started up that we want to be the best and we want to go against each other," Claiborne said. "We feel like we both compete at a high level. I get good work when I go against him and it's vice versa. When I'm not up there, he's telling me to come. We're trying to help each other so we can be the best for our team."
10. The Redskins nearly had Antrel Rolle in the 2005 draft, but he went one pick ahead of them at No. 8 to Arizona, so they drafted Carlos Rogers instead. Rolle, a corner when he came out, continues to improve at safety. Giants safeties coach Dave Merritt said of Rolle, “Before, as far as formations, he didn't see formations. He didn't really see the route concepts. Now, the last two years, it's all coming together for him and he's feeling more comfortable. So with Antrel's ability to continue to learn and grow, he hasn't really scratched his ability as a safety yet. Last year was a glimpse of what Antrel could actually become."
John Keim: Great question. Man, it'll be tough to have a greater impact than Moss did in 2005 when he caught 84 passes for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 17.7 yards per catch. I can't see Jackson matching that total simply because he'll have much more receiving talent around him. Moss had tight end Chris Cooley, but those two combined for 155 of the team's 278 receptions. No other player came within 40 of Cooley's total (71). Moss made the offense; Jackson will complete this one. He will have a big impact, but without Moss the Redskins had no passing game. Without Jackson the Redskins could still be fine. They're just better with him and he gives them the same level of playmaker Moss was in '05.
Keim: They hosted Owen Daniels early in free agency, but that was about it (and he eventually signed with Baltimore). But the drop-off from Reed to Paulsen is only when it comes to pass-catching. They like, and need, Paulsen as a blocker as Reed still needs to show he could handle that role consistently. Ted Bolser hasn't impressed me a whole lot this spring, but I always viewed him as a guy to groom for a year or two down the road. Not much of a blocker and his hands were too inconsistent this spring.
Keim: I assume you mean if whichever one doesn't start because there's no way all three will considering each plays on the inside. But the answer is yes ... probably. Hayward is a career backup, with 13 starts in his seven seasons. He's a special-teamer and was not brought in to start. Sharpton and Jordan both can help on special teams as well and have more starting experience. The decision will likely come down to this: Do you keep a fifth outside linebacker (Brandon Jenkins and/or Rob Jackson) or a fifth inside linebacker? The guys inside are stronger on special teams.
Keim: I have my doubts too, especially if you want significant improvement. There is reason to believe they'll be better because of the new pass-rushers, giving them a more diverse attack. With new outside linebackers coach Brian Baker, there is an added emphasis on an aggressive rush. Too often in the past the outside linebackers rushed contain, as they had been taught. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti will have a key role in the game planning (like Bob Slowik did last year; I trust Olivadotti a lot more). Just remember: Everything sounds good in the spring. We have to see it on the field. But the defense is aging and will remain in transition for another year. There's a lot of age up front, too -- and guys coming off injuries. It's a tough mix. They'll be helped, however, by improved special-teams play and fewer turnovers by the offense.
Keim: You are right, he dropped too many passes last season. I don't think he's a lock, but the head coach certainly likes what he adds. Two weeks ago he talked about how Moss was going to help the team. In my experience, coaches don't talk about the season that way for players they don't think will make the roster. Moss also has looked good this spring. But the other reason is this: Who will beat him out? After the three starters, there's not a whole lot of proven talent. Leonard Hankerson might not be ready to open the season; Aldrick Robinson is still Aldrick Robinson and while they like Nick Williams, is he really better than Moss? No. Besides, Williams has practice-squad eligibility. Ryan Grant will be there too but he's only a rookie. Moss provides insurance and proven depth and Jay Gruden likes him around for his leadership.
Keim: He had a good enough rookie minicamp to earn a contract. He's long, which always helps, but he has a ways to go before he can think about making the roster. Bridget has a number of players ahead of him.When training camp starts, and they start doing more one-on-ones with receivers, etc., then I'll get a better feel for him. During the spring I need to focus on the returning players, impact guys and newcomers of note. So... ask again in August.
Keim: Have not heard that, no. It's too expensive to change based on what team you have; could change on a yearly basis. They will be fast offensively on any surface. Keep in mind, too, that the defense is not considered fast.
Life is calmer now for the Redskins. (Well, if you don’t count the storm over their nickname.) That’s the result of hiring Jay Gruden, whose candor, insight and friendliness provides the franchise a breath of fresh air. But also an unknown: Though opinion around the NFL was split on his hiring, Gruden has passed the first test of his tenure by laying a solid foundation. And the Redskins head into training camp next month energized.
It’s about a new trust, felt by players and coaches. Gruden has made it clear from the get-go: This is about the players. There’s a different level of ownership by the players and even some of the coaches. Maybe it helps that Gruden took a different path to reach this point, starring in the Arena League for many years, but he coaches without much of an ego, or at least not one that overwhelms him. He didn’t come to Washington with a system, he came with beliefs in what he wanted to run and fused them with what worked well here in the past. Not all coaches operate that way.
Any change after such a disastrous season feels like a good one. Any new voice feels like the right one, especially when the new guy is a lot different than the old one. Mike Shanahan loved having total control; Gruden favors delegating authority. Shanahan did not jump into drills to provide a look for the offense (others would); Gruden will do just that. Not that one way is the right way. And, of course, one of them won Super Bowls and the other hasn’t won an NFL game yet. That’s why, for now, all we know is that the offseason has been a mostly good one for the Redskins.
However, Griffin also is still learning to be a pocket passer. That doesn’t just mean throwing a pass from the pocket, but also knowing when to run and where and how quickly to go from your first option to your second or third. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do it, but it does mean there’s an ongoing transition that will take time. Nor does it mean he won’t make plays in the process. If he’s more himself, why wouldn’t he? There are things he does well as a passer; the trick for Gruden is incorporating those while he improves in other areas. Knock the Shanahans all you want, they coaxed a terrific season from a rookie quarterback two years ago.
But Jackson is an emotional player, and the Redskins need to successfully harness that and know how to deal with him. The good news for Washington is that Griffin made it a point to learn what motivates Jackson and bond with him. That helps now; it needs to pay off during the season.
The defense can feel good, too. It added pass-rushers in Jason Hatcher and, the Redskins hope, Trent Murphy. They have a vocal leader at safety in Ryan Clark. They’ve added two outstanding linebacker coaches in Kirk Olivadotti (inside) and Brian Baker (outside), the latter of whom has focused heavily on pass rush techniques. They’ve talked a great game about a more aggressive pass rush.
Then there’s Gruden. Players have talked about the new energy in practices, stemming from him and his new hires. Coaches like him because they have more freedom -- to hire, to implement ideas, to coach. It matters. It’s too early to say he changed the culture; Shanahan was said to have done the same thing. But Gruden has changed the mood. There’s a different level of passion, stemming from his energy and the coaches. It rubs off on players. Because of that, it (should) enable him to command the room, a pre-hire criticism. That is, as long as you bring in the right players who won’t abuse that trust. It’s a fine line.
Is he organized enough? That was a knock before he was hired. Then again, his offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, is ultra-organized. Can Gruden command the room? How will he handle it if the defense struggles and he feels they should tweak or change their coverages or philosophy? Or how will he handle in-game adjustments, clock management? Player discipline?
We’ve learned a lot about Gruden, but there’s so much more to learn -- questions that can’t be answered until the season begins. Until then, the Redskins can feel optimistic. They’ve been at this point before. The next step has always been the hardest.
Jackson, the undersized wide receiver from Cal, and McCoy, the running back from Pitt, earned Pro Bowl appearances during the final, declining years of Andy Reid's tenure. Then they returned to Honolulu after putting up big numbers in their first season under new coach Chip Kelly.
"For myself, I took out of that, no matter how good a player is, it's a team," McCoy said Wednesday. "If you can't buy in, anything is possible. I'm not sure what the rest of the team took out of that. I was speaking for myself."
McCoy told the NFL Network last week that Jackson's release sent a message to the rest of the team.
"A player like that, who's done so much for this franchise -- even the year Chip was here, the stuff he did -- some players may think, 'Well, he produced on the field. That's the only thing that matters,' " McCoy said. "But it's small things I take out of everything, and that's what I took out of that."
Not that McCoy saw a need to change very much. If Jackson's behavior or attitude indicated he wasn't buying in to Kelly's approach, McCoy has been a model citizen.
"I like to do things the right way, anyway," McCoy said. "I don't think it changed too much. But it's the small things that you think about, that you think nobody cares about, when in reality, they do. Take care of the small details, do your work and have fun doing it."
McCoy led the NFL in rushing in Kelly's first season. The Eagles have added some offensive weapons, including running back Darren Sproles and wide receivers Jordan Mathews and Josh Huff. There is a chance McCoy won't amass the kind of rushing yards he did in 2013.
"I never think about that," McCoy said. "I'm productive. I look to make plays and be productive. I look forward to those things. I think Coach Kelly knows the type of guy I am, the player I want to be. If it does change, I know whatever role I get, I can be productive in it.
"The most important thing is the value you bring to the offense. I feel like my value is high. I'll do whatever it takes to be productive. If it's running more, catching less, or catching more and running less, whatever that role may be, I know what type of player I am."
With another typical season, McCoy would break Wilbert Montgomery's franchise record of 6,538 rushing yards. McCoy is 1,065 yards behind Montgomery.
"Nothing's a given," McCoy said. "That's another goal to put on my list of things to get done. The guys up front will block the way they did the last two years, and this offense will get it done."
Here are some things -- but certainly not all -- that I'll be looking for over the next three days:
Offensive design: During the OTAs, we saw a lot of situational football – red zone, third downs, two minutes, etc. Hoping we get to see even more, to get a better sense of who the Redskins might be this season. Thus far, Griffin has operated a lot under center and in shotgun during certain situations. Coach Jay Gruden sounds intent on developing him, so this helps. (Not that the other staff didn’t want to develop him; it had Griffin as a rookie and then with no offseason. Tough to develop a player who can’t practice. How it would have handled it I don’t know.)
Rookie improvement: Rookie tackle Morgan Moses knows the issue he has with staying low and has worked on it since the OTAs started. Over three days, how much improvement will he show? How about Trent Murphy? His spin move has been terrific (mostly against young players); how much else will he show? Bashaud Breeland seems to have improved and, with Tracy Porter’s durability an issue, he could be a plus for the Redskins. But is he still grabbing too much? It’s hard with the running backs to tell a whole lot, so Lache Seastrunk’s true impact won’t be known until the games start. Thus far he hasn’t stood out. Is guard Spencer Long looking more comfortable?
Offensive line: There will be an interesting battle along the line this summer, even if it’s just for one of the backup positions (especially at guard). If the Redskins keep nine offensive linemen, that means two players from this group might not make it: Mike McGlynn, Adam Gettis, Josh LeRibeus, Maurice Hurt and Tom Compton. This assumes Chris Chester keeps his job (not a lock). And they’re not going to cut Long or Moses. Remember, they signed McGlynn in free agency and his ability to play center helps. The others have some work to do.
David Amerson’s progression: He’s had a quiet camp and I mean that in a good way. It’s not like he’s messing up or getting beat and looks lost. Does that continue this week? Amerson’s continued improvement (plus a lack of cap room) is among the reasons the Redskins are not one of the teams who have inquired about recently released corner Brandon Flowers, according to a source.
DeSean Jackson: Needs to make sure he exits these three days with a good hamstring. If he’s fully recovered, it’s always impressive to watch his speed. He’s not the fastest player I’ve ever covered (Darrell Green), but he is explosive.
Coordinator chatter: We should get our first chance to interview special teams coach Ben Kotwica this week, as well as defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Will be nice to finally hear more of what they think about their groups after the spring workouts end.
Jackson stood out in Wednesday's organized team activity, getting behind the defense on one occasion and catching another long pass in tight coverage (both from Robert Griffin III).
"He feels good running straight," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "It's just sometimes coming out of cuts he's still a little bit tentative and we're just watching him. But he looked good obviously."
Jackson, who signed with Washington in early April, was unavailable to the media, according to the public relations department. But Gruden said it was good to have him back on the field. Jackson injured his hamstring on the third day of OTA workouts two weeks ago.
"It's good to see him out there push it a little bit for the team and everybody else," Jay Gruden said. "But he did a good job. He's probably working through a little bit of pain just a little bit."
But Jon Gruden said he learned a lot about his brother when both worked in Tampa. The younger Gruden served as an offensive assistant, sitting in the press box with a headset on during games.
“In a lot of ways he was like a coordinator with the Buccaneers,” said Jon Gruden, 50, and three years older than Jay. “A lot of the plays that I called went through him. He’s been able to see the game from a quarterback’s perspective for a long time. I like the way he develops young players.
“I like the way he did that for me in Tampa and the way he did that in the Arena League. If you look at the Bengals skill players, people can say all they want, but a lot of the young players played and played well fast.”
“It’s awful early to make a bunch of predictions,” Jon Gruden said. “He obviously had his eyes open to the NFL, and I know I had my eyes opened quickly as well. It will make him better in the long run. Mentally tougher. I think he’s obviously way ahead of the game physically. Last year he was hurt at this time. It’ll be an interesting thing to see how he likes this new offense and how he performs. I have a lot of confidence in him.
“I don’t know what happened here the last couple years. He was the rookie of the year. I just know the offense will be different. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
He also liked how the Redskins practiced, but said what stood out was something else.
"I like the way they incorporated speed with their offense," Jon Gruden said. "You see DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon and you see [Andre] Roberts and [Jordan] Reed look good, and they still stayed with their zone stretch running game. That combination is really good."
Jon Gruden will get his first chance to call a game with his brother as head coach in an Aug. 18 preseason game vs. Cleveland. He’s already worked games when his brother was the offensive coordinator with Cincinnati.
“I’m just trying to take care of my job,” Jon Gruden said. “I’ve already been fired. I’m just trying to hang onto the job I can and he’s trying to do the same.”
Jay Gruden said he likes when his brother visits. And, yes, certain memories are triggered.
“Coaching points he’s made throughout the history of some of the plays we’ve run,” Jay Gruden said. “They’re good, solid, valid points that you’d like to bring up to your team ... He’s a great presence. Hopefully I’ll get him to talk to the team a little bit [Thursday] and pick his brain some more, maybe a little golf.”
He’s gotten quite a bit from quarterbacks, who like throwing to a 6-foot-3 target with good hands. He’s gotten attention from defensive backs, who go where the ball is going. And Matthews has gotten a fair amount of attention from reporters working the who-will-replace-DeSean-Jackson angle.
But that’s not really fair. The truth is, the Eagles have to replace the element of speed that Jackson provided. They can do that a number of ways. Matthews might not have quite that elite speed himself, but he can be part of the mix in Kelly’s offense.
“I can see Matthews has a quick first step,” veteran cornerback Cary Williams said. “I can see him being very explosive out of breaks. And once he gets his hands on the ball, he looks like someone who can break a couple tackles and take a simple, six-yard curl into an 80-yard play.”
For now, Matthews is running with the second team as the slot receiver. That has more to do with Kelly’s approach to teaching rookies than anything. Chances are, Matthews will replace Jason Avant in the slot, with Jeremy Maclin, back from a torn ACL, stepping into Jackson’s spot on the outside.
Maclin has good speed, but not Jackson speed. The Eagles added elite speed when they acquired Darren Sproles in a trade with New Orleans. But as Kelly was quick to point out last week, Sproles is a running back. He’s not a wide receiver.
Still, Sproles’ speed can have the same effect on defenses as Jackson’s did. He can force defensive coordinators to account for him, and that is half the battle. Kelly’s ability to deploy his other weapons, to take advantage of the space created by that speed, is the other half.
“We knew [Sproles] was a really, really talented player, and when he got here, he showed that right from the jump,” Kelly said. “We heard from the coaches that coached him what an intelligent football player he is and learned that from the first day he was in this building, and how sharp he is and how dedicated he is.
“I talked to Norv Turner (who coached Sproles in San Diego) and he remarked to me when I saw him at one of the pro days, he said, ‘You'll have to slow him down because he only knows one speed.’ And that's the same thing you see. Darren practices and trains at one speed. It's awesome. He fits in with the culture that we want in terms of preparation, but it's everything we wanted when we got him here.”
Kelly’s ability to move Sproles around, and to mix and match all his other offensive weapons, will give the Eagles plenty of versatility this season. It is that, more than Matthews or any other one player, that will replace Jackson’s speed.