NFL Nation: Phillip Thomas

The company they keep suggests they have done it right. Washington is right there with the best teams in the NFL when it comes to holding on to its draft picks. Look at the top six teams when it comes to keeping their own draft picks. You have perennial playoff contenders, Super Bowl participants and league heavyweights.

And then the Redskins.

[+] EnlargeDan Snyder
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaDan Snyder and the Redskins' coaching staff need to focus more on developing the team's draft picks in the future.
It's strange company, indeed. But there they are, right behind Green Bay, Atlanta, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincinnati and New England. For the most part, it's a who's who of organizations that have done it right.

And then there are the Redskins.

"I don't think we can say we've done well because of our record," Redskins general manager Bruce Allen said.

The numbers spell it out. Washington ranks seventh in the NFL with 28 former draft picks on its roster. In the free-agency era, that has to register as a surprise given the Redskins' reputation. Of course, the salary-cap penalties of the past two offseasons forced them to do business another way.

It's sort of like the "Seinfeld" episode in which Jerry tells a rental car clerk, "See, you know how to take the reservation. You just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part of the reservation."

If the Redskins want to sustain success, they will do more than just draft and retain players; they will improve at developing them.

It's not as if they haven't had success stories. In 2012, they rode two rookies to the playoffs: quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick. Griffin extended plays and ran well, so the Redskins incorporated that into their offense. Morris could plant and cut, so that's what they asked him to do. They've had other success stories, just not enough of them.

Too often the Redskins have relied on outside help to fill holes. This past offseason they needed offensive line help, so they signed a starting guard and added a veteran backup. Two years ago they drafted three linemen, yet none of them project to be in the starting lineup. One of those three, guard Josh LeRibeus, was a third-round pick who was inactive in every game last season.

Washington's director of player personnel Scott Campbell said Tuesday that to find players worth developing, you see how much they love football. If a guy struggles with weight issues, that's a concern. LeRibeus had those issues in college and again after his rookie season. He is young, so perhaps he still develops, but he'll do so with constant pressure behind him.

"If you can't develop and want to build through the draft, then you're just sitting there with guys that can't play and they're young," one former Redskins coach said. "It becomes a double-edged sword and you're headed nowhere fast. Then you have to roll the dice in free agency and find a veteran player you hope can bail you out of that situation."

As Allen pointed out Tuesday, the Redskins have won titles multiple ways: from his father's ability to trade draft picks in the 1970s to finding bargain Plan B free agents in the 1980s. But owner Dan Snyder's era has produced seven double-digit loss seasons in the last 11.

The Redskins have drafted 34 players in the past four years: 14 on defense, 20 on offense. Of that group, eight project to be starters in 2014. Another player, tight end Logan Paulsen, went from undrafted in 2011 to starting tight end last year. Fullback Darrel Young switched positions and now is a starter.

The defense really needs to develop its own (the offense is much younger). Washington's D is in transition, with three starters in the secondary 30 or older and four top linemen in that same category. That means, if they want to build success, and then sustain it, they must hope that some of these players develop: Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas at safety and linebacker Keenan Robinson, as a long-term replacement for the retired London Fletcher. They need more youth along the front or for Jarvis Jenkins to blossom in his third playing season.

Two offseason moves could help: the hiring of inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and signing safety Ryan Clark. Olivadotti had a terrific reputation for working with young players in his first go-round with Washington, helping Brian Orakpo as a rookie. If Robinson is healthy -- after tearing a different pectoral muscle in each of his first two seasons -- then he has a shot because of Olivadotti.

As for Clark, maybe at 34 he has nothing left. Pittsburgh didn't think so. But he can still add value in Washington, desperate to solve a longtime hole at safety. Clark, who almost always has been a part of a good secondary, starting in college, can provide more help in getting players from one point in their career to another. He's not afraid to call out players -- star players too -- and let them know what's not acceptable. He'll also guide them just as much. Clark will be as much a coach on the field as anyone.

The Redskins don't have a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, so a lot of their selections this weekend won't provide immediate help. But if the Redskins develop their own, they will build a foundation that they've too often lacked.

Redskins mailbag: Part 1

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
1:10
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Apparently, not everyone thinks adding more pass-rushers is a good idea. So it says in one of the questions -- I have my own thoughts on the matter in Part 1 of the mailbag. And why do the Redskins stink in prime-time games? Could it be something other than, well, they've been bad most of the past decade? More draft questions, too. Enjoy
 
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Some highlights from Jay Gruden’s hour-long press gathering at the owners meetings:

1. He’s OK if linebacker Brian Orakpo plays out the season on the franchise tag. Sounds like he and the organization wants to see if his production increases, thanks to the promise of being turned loose more and also having an outside linebackers coach.

2. They will move Shawn Lauvao to left guard and keep Chris Chester at right guard. Gruden did not address Josh LeRibeus, but it’s clear from this move that there’s not a whole lot of confidence in him.

3. He certainly understands the importance of maximizing Robert Griffin III. He’s glad that Griffin needs to be reined in when it comes to his desire to push himself.

4. Gruden said if Griffin isn’t comfortable with the read option, they won’t run it as much. He also said he won’t try to stop him from running out of the pocket. Clearly, though, there’s a balance that needs to be struck. But Gruden wants Griffin to feel comfortable on the field. That’s a big issue.

5. He loves Jordan Reed.

6. Yes, they looked for some bigger linemen, but they want big guys who can move. As has been stated many times, they plan to use the same run-game schemes.

7. He’d like Alfred Morris to be a guy who could catch 20 to 25 passes a season. But he said Morris isn’t a natural pass-catcher; has work to do.

8. Gruden is a breath of fresh air. Though there are some things he can’t say, he was as honest as possible without crossing a line.

9. He’s not concerned about Griffin’s knee; wasn’t too deep on him playing without the brace and what it might mean. Why? Because he said the braces are so light these days.

10. He liked watching Chris Thompson at Florida State and seems anxious to work with him. But his durability is a major issue.

11. He said no teams have called about quarterback Kirk Cousins, but added that he wants “two great quarterbacks” because of Griffin’s style of play.

12. Gruden acknowledged he likes to have a lot of plays; apparently he was able to streamline that desire better during his time in Cincinnati. Does not want to overload Griffin, but says the third-year QB can handle a lot.

13. He mentioned the young safeties, but, again, I don’t get a sense that either Bacarri Rambo or Phillip Thomas will be the answer this season. Rambo’s play did not suggest he should be; Thomas’ foot and recovery from the Lisfranc injury makes him a question mark for now.

14. Gruden mentioned Andre Roberts’ versatility as a receiver. I don’t get the sense that the return position is solved by his arrival, however.

15. They're anxious to see Kory Lichtensteiger at center. As for Tyler Polumbus at right tackle, Gruden was a bit complimentary but I don't get the sense they're done looking for another possibility. Or, as they say, "more depth."

Redskins combine prep: safeties

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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The Redskins selected two safeties last spring, but one (Phillip Thomas) missed the entire season with a foot injury and the other (Bacarri Rambo) did not look ready for a starting job anytime soon. That’s why they’ll have to take a serious look at the safeties in this draft, with a good chance to do so at the scouting combine over the next week.

Here are four safeties to watch:

Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois): He’s only 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, which is why he’ll still be around in the second round. ESPN's Mel Kiper wrote of Ward that he “isn’t a big player but is a very good one and looks as if he can start early. Likely a second-rounder.” He intercepted seven passes this past season. Ward played well at the Senior Bowl so another good showing at the combine obviously will help him. Ward plays aggressively and showed good coverage skills; he runs through the ball carrier when he tackles. Ward had to cover man (though he did not face great competition in the Mid-American Conference) and lined up at both safety spots. “I think he fits today’s NFL which is coverage ability,” Kiper said, “and the fact he’s around the action so much and makes so many impact plays.”

Antone Exum (Virginia Tech): He’ll be one to watch for any team seeking a safety in the middle rounds. Exum played both corner and safety at Virginia Tech so there’s some doubt over what he’ll play in the NFL. He missed most of last season because of a torn ACL. But he has good size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) and could be a presence as a safety. Kiper rates him as the sixth best safety.

Dion Bailey (USC): He played both strongside linebacker and safety in college, but at 6-foot and 200 pounds, his NFL future is at the latter (it’s also where he played this past season). Kiper considers him the fifth best safety in the draft. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in coverage drills at the combine. Another player who should be available in the middle rounds.

Ahmad Dixon (Baylor): Kiper rated him as the eighth best safety. Dixon is projected by most as a fourth-round pick at best. Often played in the box at Baylor and played physical in this area. Dixon got in trouble for some hits and will need to fix this area to avoid fines (and penalties) in the NFL. After playing mostly zone (a lot of quarters coverage) in college, he has to show he can cover man and also move from free to strong. The Redskins like their safeties to play both spots.
*Even if Brandon Meriweather wins an appeal on his two-game suspension, he might still end up serving one game. Tampa Bay’s Dashon Goldson earlier this season and then-Baltimore safety Ed Reed a year ago both had their one-game suspensions reduced to fines. By giving Meriweather two games the NFL, it would appear, made it so that if the suspension were reduced he’d still sit out a game. I'd imagine someone with Meriweather's repeat offender history would have a hard time getting it reduced to just a fine. Meriweather has three days to appeal the ruling that was handed down Monday.

*The Redskins’ safety situation goes back to their inability to develop a player at that position or find a solution via free agency. They signed an aging O.J. Atogwe right before the lockout. Some executives and scouts I had spoken with said Atogwe was done -- and had been for a year. He turned out to be slow and ineffective. And done. They followed it up a year later by signing a two-time drug offender in Tanard Jackson who was then ... suspended indefinitely (and remains out) for drugs. They signed a player in Meriweather with a history of undisciplined play. Yes, at times he has helped them and when he’s going good the defense is better, but they’re in a bind now because of ... undisciplined play. They signed another aging vet in Madieu Williams, who was only supposed to be a backup but was forced into starting. And looked like an aging vet.

[+] EnlargeReed Doughty
AP Photo/Greg TrottReed Doughty has been a steady contributor at safety for the Redskins.
*This position has been greatly affected by the salary-cap penalty. I’m quite sure they would have signed someone of a higher caliber than the guys they had to settle on. But remember, their first choice a few years ago was Atogwe, back when the cap wasn’t an issue. So there’s no guarantee. But it has to be a top priority in the offseason.

*The only steady player at safety has been veteran Reed Doughty, who was here before this regime. Doughty gets a terrible rap by the fans, but he’s the lone player they can count on -- no off-field worries; no undisciplined play, etc. He’s best as a backup, but he’s a quality one and the Redskins are fortunate he’s still around. He does his job and the coaches know exactly what they’ll give them; they can work with that.

*Yes, they allowed LaRon Landry to leave. Given his two-year run of Achilles' issues, that was a 50-50 call and Landry wasn't all that thrilled with the Redskins' training staff, so he was looking to get out. Even coaches here who liked him were quick to bring up his health long before he left. Landry played every game last season but has missed four because of a high-ankle sprain this year with the Indianapolis Colts.

*Drafting and developing has been a problem too. The Redskins haven’t selected a safety above the fourth round, but they’ve had misfortune (2012 seventh-rounder Jordan Bernstine with terrible ligament tears that ended his time here; 2013 fourth-rounder Phillip Thomas with a Lisfranc injury) and some who didn’t develop (2011 fifth-rounder DeJon Gomes). They also have rookie Bacarri Rambo, a sixth-round pick who went from starter the first two games to inactive the past three.

*Being inactive is a reflection on Rambo’s special-teams performance. But if you lose your starting job, one way to get it back is to become a force on special teams. Defensive coaches love guys like that; also says something about how you respond. If and when Rambo gets back on the field he'll have a lot to prove. He was not ready to start initially (sixth-round picks rarely are) and his inclusion in the lineup always was as much about what they didn't have as what he could do.

*My preseason prediction of who would start at safety? Meriweather and Doughty. Why? Because it’s very, very tough for a rookie low-round pick to become an instant starter with how much they had to adjust to from college and learn. Maybe Thomas and Rambo become the starters in future seasons, but it’s way too early to believe that definitely will happen.

*What could save them, or at least help them, is the versatility of their corners. That’s something they talked about after the draft, following their selection of corner David Amerson. For now, he’s not the versatile one. But they can use E.J. Biggers in a safety role and they have used Josh Wilson in a variety of roles as well as DeAngelo Hall (more so in the past). You need to be a smart player to handle such a role. If they’re saved Sunday, this versatility will be part of the reason. It allows them to do more with their coverages, which has helped a great deal in recent weeks, until the second half Sunday. It hasn’t always worked, but the real issue in the opener versus Philadelphia, when Biggers started at safety, was having to be in a nickel front all game.

*I really don’t know what they’ll do in Meriweather’s place Sunday, though I’d imagine Biggers will play a key role. Can they really trust Jose Gumbs (nine career defensive snaps) or Trenton Robinson (zero career defensive snaps)? Against Peyton Manning? Re-sign Jordan Pugh? The pass rush will need to be outstanding Sunday.

Upon further review: Redskins Week 2

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Washington Redskins' 38-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday:

[+] EnlargeWashington Redskins
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsPoor tackling plagued the Redskins in their loss to the Packers on Sunday.
Tackling woes: The Redskins' defense already had flaws; it added another one with its tackling. The Redskins consistently give high-powered offenses extra yards because they fail to tackle; they have allowed the most yards after contact this season (208) after ranking sixth in this area last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The problem is that teams are able to spread them out, preventing gang tackling at times. They’re not good enough, and not making enough plays, to overcome this issue. Teams will continue to get them in space, and Washington needs to prove it can tackle. Or else.

Quarterback runs: Is Robert Griffin III not running on zone-read options because of his knee? Because of how defenses are playing them? Because deficits forced the Redskins to abandon it? It’s a good question (why, thank you), and one we’ll try to answer throughout the week. Griffin’s timing in the pocket is off -- yes, a byproduct of missing so much offseason work from the knee injury. It can be subtle sometimes, but the difference in hitting a receiver on the correct shoulder can mean the difference between a 10-yard gain or 20. It adds up. One reason the Redskins gained so many yards after the catch last season was because of the chaos in the back end of defenses, fueled by late linebacker drops as they were worried about defending a multi-option run game.

Brandon Meriweather: There’s a dual issue here with Meriweather, starting with his health after leaving Sunday’s game with a concussion. He’ll now be monitored all week. So the Redskins will spend another week waiting to see whether Meriweather is able to play. Then you have to wonder what sort of punishment, if any, he’ll receive from the NFL. He was not flagged for either of his big hits, but replays showed him leading with his helmet on the first one against Eddie Lacy. Regardless, when he returns they need him more under control with his tackling -- and he needs to prove he can play for longer than a half without getting hurt. His continual health issues make the loss of Phillip Thomas even worse. But just think of the learning curve for a secondary with three rookies in prominent roles. UPDATE: Meriweather will be fined, but not suspended according to Adam Shefter.

Special teams: They’ve flown under the radar a little bit because of the problems elsewhere. But they shouldn’t. The special teams have not done anything to help. That goes for the returns, where rookie Chris Thompson is averaging 19.7 yards on six kick returns and 4.7 yards on three punt returns; one good runback would boost either number. Gunner Niles Paul and long-snapper Nick Sundberg both received 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties Sunday. In Sundberg’s case, the Redskins had pinned Green Bay at its own 10-yard line. It wasn’t a death sentence for the defense that the Packers then started at the 25-yard line. But right now every yard is huge for this defense. And Sav Rocca shanked a 25-yard punt that gave Green Bay the ball at its own 35 in the first quarter.
Washington Redskins strong safety Phillip Thomas, part of a young secondary that viewed itself as the future, suffered a Lisfranc ligament tear of his left foot and will miss the season, coach Mike Shanahan said.

The fourth-round pick had been working with the Redskins’ second-string defense, though he started in place of Brandon Meriweather in the first preseason game.

Thomas suffered the injury in Washington’s preseason-opening win over Tennessee. On Saturday, Shanahan said initial X-rays had ruled out a fracture as well as a Lisfranc tear. But Thomas visited noted foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. With the swelling subsided, Anderson took another X-ray, which showed the ligament tear. Thomas will undergo surgery and face a recovery period of four to five months.

Thomas was not projected to start this season, but the Redskins were hoping for increased depth at a shaky spot. A week ago defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said that Thomas had really figured out how to play in the box. He had started to figure out where to fit against various runs -- it changed based on numerous factors, much more than he had faced at Fresno State.

Because of that, it would not have been a stretch to see him work his way into the lineup, especially since Meriweather is coming off a torn ACL last season and has been limited much of camp. He did take most of the full-team reps Monday, but was held back Tuesday. The Redskins also have veterans Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes, both of whom are best suited as backups. The coaches like Doughty for how well prepared he is and for how he plays in the box. Gomes is better closer to the line as well, but can play deep.

"You lose a guy, the competition still goes on," Shanahan said. "We have a lot of quality players out there."

What we learned: Redskins defense

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
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After rewatching the Redskins' 22-21 win over Tennessee, a few opinions were solidified, some shifted a little and a few discoveries were made:

1. Bacarri Rambo was put in a terrible spot by his front seven on Chris Johnson’s 58-yard touchdown run and, considering it was his first game, he had no chance. There was too much open field, though had he made the play it would have said a lot about Rambo. The fact that he did not just lumps him in with many other safeties. But the Titans' other touchdown run, by Shonn Greene, was a result, in part, of a poor angle by Rambo coming from deep middle. Rambo started too much inside, was a little too slow and any chance he had at making a touchdown-saving tackle was lost. Poor angles have doomed many a safety, and it’s a big reason why I was surprised Rambo opened as the starter from the first camp.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson and Bacarri Rambo
AP Photo/Wade PayneRedskins safety Bacarri Rambo (right) couldn't keep Chris Johnson out of the end zone Thursday, but it was another Titans touchdown that showed Rambo taking a bad angle for a tackle.
2. Keep in mind the Redskins do not do any live hitting or any sort of drills that simulate what Rambo witnessed last night – certainly nothing at that level of speed. A key will be how he develops in this area throughout the preseason. In the end, these plays could be beneficial to the Redskins. Same with the 15-yard late-hit penalty he received at the end of the second touchdown run. He has to play with more discipline. If the Redskins have to start multiple rookies, there will be many lessons learned.

3. Phillip Thomas did a good job on the first play of the game, ducking under the tight end to race across the line and help on a tackle. But he got sucked too far inside on Johnson’s long touchdown run, helping to create the huge opening. Technically Johnson broke a tackle at the line, a shoestring attempt by Brian Orakpo. But in reality nobody had a shot at him because Thomas covered inside, then was blocked; Stephen Bowen and Chris Neild were blocked inside and Orakpo came upfield too far.

4. It wasn’t just the rookies who struggled with angles. Even linebacker Perry Riley took a poor one on a pass completion, leading to a 13-yard gain when Riley went too wide to the inside, allowing Greene to get wide.

5. The difference with Orakpo on the field? On the Ryan Kerrigan sack, the guard blocked Bowen, then allowed the center to take over while he slid to his left in case Orakpo cut inside vs. the tackle. This left Bowen in a one-on-one situation with the center. When the outside rushers Orakpo and Brandon Jenkins pinched the pocket, Titans quarterback Jake Locker could not step up because Bowen had collapsed the middle. Too often last year Bowen received double teams and could not be as effective.

6. Another point on Kerrigan’s sack: It came when he was aligned in a four-point stance vs. the guard. But the real point is that it allowed him to use his favored rip move. One difficulty doing it outside is that tackles can keep a distance and negate this move. Much tougher to do that inside, and sure enough it worked for Kerrigan. It'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Jim Haslett works his linebacker group in pass-rush situations.

7. I also forgot to note in the Ten Observations another play that stood out with Orakpo: Ducking under the left shoulder of the tackle en route to a sack. It was an impressive display of balance and explosion, one that Michael Roos could not handle. The Redskins had rushers go by linemen last season; not like this.

8. This wasn’t exactly Ken Houston stopping Walt Garrison, but it was a good job by David Amerson to stop Kenny Britt on a third-and-4 pass, leaving the Titans a yard short. Amerson played more physical than he had showed at N.C. State last season. He won’t look pretty in this role at times, but he just needs to be willing. He did allow himself to be cut by a blocker on one run; he’ll learn how to avoid those situations.

9. Brandon Jenkins did a nice job on some rushes, but his spin move will need refining. It did work one time when he dipped his right shoulder into the right tackle and spun back inside. It worked this time. But the next time he tried it, Jenkins appeared to start his spin a bit early and the right tackle had no trouble adjusting. He’s going to be at his best when paired alongside Kerrigan and/or Orakpo. I also think Jenkins will be a nice addition on special teams.

10. Seemed like Bryan Kehl was a step slow to the ball Thursday night, or a step slower than I expected at least. He didn’t really make any plays. Undrafted free agent Will Compton, playing alongside him, was decisive, but he has a ways to go. Roddrick Muckelroy did not distinguish himself, missing a couple tackles. He also got sucked up on a play-action pass on Tennessee’s second-half touchdown in which the flat on his side was wide open.

11. If you saw any of Chase Minnifield’s jams, you understand why the coaches consider him the most aggressive corner in this area. He practically jumps at the receiver and I worry sometimes about him getting off-balance. But I haven’t seen that happen yet. And I like how willing he is to hit.

12. One reason I like Richard Crawford is because he’s a smart player. In talking to him last year, it’s easy to see him becoming a coach someday. So it wasn’t a surprise that he knows how to play as a small corner. On his near-interception, Crawford forced the quarterback into a tough throw by being in good position in terms of his depth. When you’re shorter, you have to understand how to play and Crawford doesn’t have Amerson’s length. So he must be in even better position, and on this play he was.

13. Phillip Merling did what a veteran should do against backups: play well. He’s held his own against the No. 2 linemen in camp and he played with power Thursday. Chris Baker also showed a little bit at times; his best rush came when he remained low – that’s a lot of heft driving a lineman back. Baker did make a play by beating the tackle. There was one time in which he appeared to get upfield too fast and vacated his gap, leading to a hole and solid run.

Redskins: Morning wake-up call

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
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A longer one today, but that’s because it’s finally game day (albeit a preseason one). So when the Redskins play at Tennessee at 8 p.m. ET tonight, here’s what I’m most interested to see:

1. The rookie defensive backs. Corner David Amerson and strong safety Phillip Thomas will start because of injuries while free safety Bacarri Rambo continues in the starter’s role, as he has all camp. They consider themselves the future, but how many are capable of being the present as well? It’s one thing to look good in practice against an offense and players you’re used to seeing. Can they do it in a game? Along with this group, I’ll add corner Chase Minnifield, a first-year player who missed last season with a torn ACL. If he plays well and stays healthy this summer it could force the Redskins to keep six corners.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Steve HelberWith Robert Griffin III's status for Week 1 up in the air, the Redskins need to see improvement from backup Kirk Cousins.
2. How Kirk Cousins plays. Again, I’ll have more Thursday afternoon on how he’s changed over the past year, but with Robert Griffin III’s health in question for the opener, Cousins needs to show progress in the preseason. He’s more prone to turnovers than Griffin, but Cousins’ mindset as a passer will often result in big plays too. Cousins will play between 10 to 15 snaps with the first team only. If nothing else, his steady improvement -- even in preseason games -- will increase his trade value down the road. But the Redskins need him better now (and think that he is) because of Griffin’s situation.

3. Will they run any zone read? They didn’t do so in the preseason last year because it was new. Now everyone knows they’ll run it -- and keep running it -- and they’ve discussed Cousins running it as well. He looks comfortable with the footwork and timing of it in practice. The best, though, is when pocket passer Rex Grossman runs it in practice. If the NFL wants fans to enjoy the preseason they should request Grossman run it once in a game, just for kicks.

4. Defensive end Chris Baker. With Jarvis Jenkins out for the first four games Baker needs to show he can provide early depth or possibly even start. Veteran Kedric Golston, the likely starter in place of Jenkins, is a known commodity at this position. Baker is not. He’s still adapting to this spot, though he has looked more comfortable here compared to early in camp. Is he occupying blockers? It’s the first requirement of this job. Can he get upfield in the pass rush? Baker loves getting upfield, though for an end in the 3-4 that’s not always what the coaches want.

5. Receiver Aldrick Robinson. He’s had a good start to camp, with only one day where he really struggled, dropping three passes and fighting the ball with his hands. However, Robinson must prove he can handle a blocking role, too. In the stretch zone scheme, that’s a must for a receiver and an area he struggled in mightily last season.

6. Left tackle Tom Compton. With Trent Williams practicing in a hard cast to protect a sprained left wrist, Compton is expected to work with the starters. The second-year tackle, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, is still in the development stage. He struggled last year with counter moves, in part because he lacked the power to knock rushers off their original path. Coaches said he got stronger, but that’s been an issue in this camp too. He obviously won’t be needed as a starter, unless something happens to Williams, but he does need to show he can be a quality backup.

7. Offensive right tackles Tyler Polumbus, Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood. It’s Polumbus’ job and he’s looked more consistent in camp than the other two, but he still has to prove he can pass protect better than last season. Pashos is shedding bad habits and rust -- picked up first while playing with a torn tendon in his foot all of 2011 and then by having to sit out last season. Trueblood, benched last year in Tampa, has struggled.

8. Roy Helu. If healthy he should be the third-down back because of his speed and big-play ability. Durability is the main issue. He’s looked good picking up blitzes in camp -- will that continue in the games? We already know Alfred Morris is the starter, but Helu’s return after missing most of last season with turf toe should help the offense.

9. The pass rush. A big problem last season and an area that should be helped by the return of linebacker Brian Orakpo. They will be creative in getting three and sometimes four pass-rushing outside linebackers on the field. But it’s doubtful they’ll show much of that in the preseason. The Redskins need to get pressure from a four-man rush much more than last season, and not always through creative disguises.
Highlights from Tuesday's Washington Redskins' practice:

  • Redskins coach Mike Shanahan missed practice to attend the funeral of a close friend. Assistant head coach/running backs coach Bobby Turner ran practice. Turner has been with Shanahan for 18 years and has excelled at grooming running backs who fit the stretch zone system. But Turner is a man of few words who doesn't enjoy talking to the media. He took no questions in his post-practice press conference, instead reading a 115-word statement.
  • [+] EnlargeWashington's Bobby Turner
    AP Photo/Steve HelberRunning backs coach Bobby Turner, left, ran Redskins' practice on Tuesday.
    The Redskins worked in shells instead of shoulder pads, which means there won’t be many observations because players don’t go at the same speed as when they have pads on. It’s particularly tough to gauge a lineman’s day in this situation. With the preseason opener two days away it’s not a surprise that they would go in shells.
  • There’s an excellent chance that the Redskins will open with three rookies in the secondary against the Titans, thanks in part to injuries. They are: corner David Amerson who will replace DeAngelo Hall, sitting out after hurting his ankle earlier in camp; safety Bacarri Rambo, the starter from the first day of camp; and safety Phillip Thomas, who would start if Brandon Meriweather does not. It’s unlikely Meriweather would play considering he only returned to full work Monday after a week off because of his right knee.
  • It’s also hard to imagine that another starting corner, Josh Wilson, started playing fulltime only recently because of offseason shoulder surgery. Wilson looked solid in 11-on-11 work.
  • Amerson made a leaping interception on a deep out thrown by Rex Grossman. Amerson also did a nice job in press coverage against Pierre Garcon. He did a good job with his left hand on a jam, mirrored Garcon’s movements and made a sharp break when he cut. The quarterback looked elsewhere. Amerson struggled early in camp with some holds -- he straddled the line between a good jam and a hold several days in a row -- but he looked good on this route.
  • Left tackle Trent Williams, wearing a hard cast with padding on his left wrist, isn’t sure if he’ll play Monday. He did take work with the starters during the 11-on-11 portion. But Williams’ hand is completely covered by the padding, leaving him with one hand to use against pass- rushers. Williams said he wants to play. “Yeah, it’s football,” he said.
  • It wasn’t a big play, but it’s one I liked nonetheless. Thomas came up against the run on a run by Chris Thompson, but he did so under control. Thompson initially appeared headed outside, but Thomas took that away with his angle. When Thompson cut back inside, Thomas easily reacted to the cut. He was patient and balanced. One of Thomas’ biggest adjustments is learning how to fit on the run; he did a nice job on this one. Secondary coach Raheem Morris helps by often asking questions of him on the field -- like what he was looking at in a particular coverage -- rather than just telling him what he needed to do.
  • The four players who returned kickoffs Tuesday: Niles Paul, Evan Royster, Nick Williams and Skye Dawson.
  • Four players sat out Tuesday: tight end Jordan Reed (bruised foot), fullback Eric Kettani (knee), guard Josh LeRibeus (hyperextended knee) and guard/tackle Maurice Hurt (knee).
  • New special teams coach Keith Burns is not as loud as his predecessor, Danny Smith. But when he has a point to make, it gets made. When working with his first kick coverage unit, Burns was displeased with how they handled their execution, yelling about how some used their hands. He shouted at them to “go again!” They did. This time, they did it better.
Highlights from Monday's Washington Redskins' practice:

  • Monday was the first day the Redskins’ defense played with all of its starters on the field as DeAngelo Hall (ankle) and Brandon Meriweather (knee) returned to work. Jarvis Jenkins worked with the starters, too, after spending more time with the second unit last week.
  • One thing that secondary coach Raheem Morris stresses to his young defensive backs, particularly the safeties, is communication. He constantly was shouting at each of his rookie safeties, notably Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas, to remind them to talk loud. Morris was pleased with how Rambo handled this, “Way to talk Bacarri!” But he implored Thomas to talk “Louder! Louder! Louder!”
  • [+] EnlargeBrandon Meriweather and DeAngelo Hall
    Geoff Burke/USA Today SportsBrandon Meriweather and DeAngelo Hall have been making progress from their injuries.
    Thomas did do a good job in the box on one read, coming up closer to the line based on the formation. He read the quarterback’s eyes, forced a tight window and subsequent incomplete pass with his coverage. Thomas is slowly coming along with his play in the box.
  • Second-year left tackle Tom Compton has had an uneven camp thus far. One problem he had last season was being unable to react to a counter move, partly because his initial punch at a defender wasn’t strong enough to knock him off line. Compton continues to allow inside pressure -- and not only to established players.
  • One player who has jumped out on occasion is rookie linebacker Brandon Jenkins. He has a ways to go and the games will be vital for him. But he got some work with the starting defense and faced the No. 1 offense. However, right tackle Tyler Polumbus handled Jenkins. One area Polumbus focused on this offseason -- keeping his shoulders square and his hands in tight on the defender -- was on display against Jenkins. Polumbus must prove he can be that consistent against quality pass-rushers, though he did a good job on a wide rush by Ryan Kerrigan. The third-year linebacker has had more success rushing inside the tackles with his counter move this camp.
  • It was second-year right guard Adam Gettis' first day back after his hamstring injury. So you have to take that into consideration. But he had a bad habit last season of getting stood up by his man. Gettis had the leg strength to sometimes anchor in these situations, but the coaches want him to get stood up much less. However, that’s what was happening to Gettis on Monday. Just something to watch.
  • Corner Josh Wilson intercepted two passes Monday, with one coming in a two-minute situation when he stepped in front of the receiver to grab a Kirk Cousins pass.
  • It’s hard to imagine anyone but Roy Helu ending up as the third-down back for Washington. He’s done a decent job in pass protection and he remains their best receiving threat out of the backfield. He also had a nice run today, running with excellent pad level through the hole.
  • Mike Shanahan talked about the need for Leonard Hankerson to be more consistent in camp. Thus far, that has not been the case. Hankerson dropped two passes this afternoon; both were very catchable. Shanahan said the same about Aldrick Robinson and aside from one day in which he dropped three passes, he has been consistent. Robinson made a nice grab in tight coverage against Chase Minnifield along the sideline. Though Robinson isn’t big -- he’s 5-foot-10, 181 pounds -- he has done a good job in camp of holding onto passes after being hit.
  • Cousins is obviously not as mobile as Robert Griffin III. But Cousins understands how to move in the pocket and showed a subtle slide to his left to elude pressure, then reset and threw to Pierre Garcon. Cousins makes one or two really nice throws each practice. He’s not afraid to throw into tight windows, which will lead to big-time throws and occasional trouble.
Injury report: Hall returned to practice after spraining his right ankle a week ago. Meriweather participated in the bulk of practice, a good sign for a player who missed a week of practice. The test for Meriweather is how his surgically-repaired right knee feels Tuesday. Rookie running back Chris Thompson also practiced. He, too, has been in and out after ACL surgery last fall. Thompson looked quick in the open field; durability will always be an issue with him… Receiver Devery Henderson missed practice due to a death in the family. …Rookie tight end Jordan Reed bruised the top of his foot and will undergo an MRI Monday night.

Quotable: “Last year and this year he lost a good 10 pounds. He decided to be in the best shape he could possibly be in. He had a great offseason and you see the dividends from being in great shape… He has continued to do that this year. He is in excellent shape. You can see some of the plays he has made thus far at camp, see that he is hungry and he is going to play at a very high level.” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan on wide recei er Santana Moss.
RICHMOND, Va. -- When sixth-round draft pick Bacarri Rambo first looked at the Washington Redskins' defensive playbook this spring, he was surprised how familiar it looked to him. The Redskins' rookie safety saw a lot of similarities between the Redskins' defense and the defense in which he played at the University of Georgia.

"A lot similar," Rambo said after one of the Redskins' practices Friday. "We run the same 3-4, a lot of the blitz patterns and the coverages are the same, and also we had a linebackers coach from here that was at Georgia the last couple of years I was there, and he taught me a lot."

That coach was Kirk Olivadotti, who left the Redskins after the 2010 season and got the job as linebackers coach at Georgia. The experience of working with Olivadotti is one of several factors that have contributed to a surprisingly high comfort level for Rambo as he's run with the first-team defense here in the early days of training camp.

[+] EnlargeBacarri Rambo
AP Photo/Ron Sachs Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said he's taken notice of rookie safety Baccari Rambo's comfort level within the team's defensive scheme.
"Once I got drafted and got here during the rookie minicamp, I looked over the playobook and saw there were a lot of the same things, just different terms," Rambo said. "It helps me play a whole lot faster."

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said of Rambo, "you can see he's really relaxed back there," and that's part of the reason he's getting this early chance with the first team. But Shanahan also offered high praise for his other rookie safety, fourth-rounder Phillip Thomas. He's obviously a long way from deciding whether either of these guys can start at free safety for him once the regular season starts, but the team's need at the position is such that the rookies are definitely in the mix.

"I think we've got a chance to get better in the secondary," Shanahan said after Saturday morning's walkthrough. "We've got some good young guys with a lot of talent, and now it's how quick they learn it. But I like what I've seen."

Safety is one of the positions Shanahan always says is impossible to evaluate until the pads go on and the preseason games start. So it'll be a while before any final evaluations get made. He also has reliable veteran Reed Doughty, whom he knows can start if none of the younger guys is ready in time. The Redskins hope Brandon Meriweather is healthy and able to man the strong safety position, but free safety is wide open, which means opportunity for the youngsters.

So, since Rambo's the guy out there right now, let's quickly examine his case. He's a good instinctive player and a sure tackler, which bode well for his ability to handle a last-line-of-defense, center-field type role in the Redskins' defense. Pre-draft evaluations questioned his sideline-to-sideline speed, which could be an issue, and the Redskins don't know yet how he'll play if asked to move up in the box and play the run. Since they like to be able to interchange their safeties, this is something Rambo, Thomas or anyone else with designs on that spot will have to show.

The Redskins are likely to keep at least four safeties -- Meriweather, Doughty, Rambo and Thomas -- and holdovers Jordan Pugh and DeJon Gomes are in the mix for roster spots as well. They're likely to keep at least four cornerbacks -- DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson, David Amerson and E.J. Biggers -- with Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield in the mix there. So there's still lots to sort out in the secondary, even beyond picking starters. Could Amerson play his way into a starter's role and make Wilson expendable? Can they count on Minnifield to hold up physically? Do they have to keep Crawford on the team as a return man?

Secondary is the position of greatest uncertainty for the 2013 Redskins, which is why it's no surprise to find them mulling the very real possibility of going with a rookie as their starting free safety.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC East team?

DALLAS COWBOYS

Offense: Running game
Dallas averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in 2012. In turn, the Cowboys too often got away from their run game and became too reliant on Tony Romo and this very good passing attack. The offensive line was mostly to blame for the ground struggles, but at least Dallas did use a first-round pick on Travis Frederick to improve the interior of the line. But DeMarco Murray is increasingly difficult to count on, having missed nine of 32 games in his two NFL seasons. Murray’s yards per attempt also dropped from 5.5 to 4.1 in his second season.

Defense: Scheme change
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a smart man and surely will not rely on his usual Tampa 2 scheme as some might speculate. Still, after investing so heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as man-to-man corners, Dallas now -- just one year later -- will ask these two to operate much more out of their comfort zone. It will be interesting to see what percentage of man coverage Dallas plays this season.

Wild card: The linebackers
If Dallas does move to a predominant Tampa 2 scheme, two players who should benefit a great deal are Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter at the Will linebacker spot. Both have outstanding range and playmaking skills. Lee could flourish much like Brian Urlacher did in his prime as an outstanding coverage linebacker, while Carter could have a Derrick Brooks-type impact as a run-and-hit defender.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Offense: Plenty to like
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect the Giants’ offense to produce an awful lot of points this season. With the addition of Justin Pugh, the offensive line should be upgraded. My only slight concern is at tight end, where Martellus Bennett's blocking will be missed. New starter Brandon Myers really isn't even comparable in that department. I am expecting a breakout season from running back David Wilson, with Andre Brown acting as a superb complement. Wide receiver Rueben Randle also should take monumental steps forward in his second season, and I have little doubt that Eli Manning is still an exceptional quarterback. What’s not to like?

Defense: Back seven
While I am extremely high on the Giants’ offense and think the defensive line will be improved, the back seven of this defense is worrisome. This just might be the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, and I expect Kenny Phillips to be missed at safety. Certainly the Giants have been successful defensively by dedicating resources to the defensive line, but this is a bit ridiculous.

Wild card: Defensive line
Can this deep and talented front make up for all the concerns behind it? I have my doubts, but that isn’t a knock on this front four. Potentially, the Giants should go four deep at end and six deep at tackle with high-end talent. That is pretty amazing and should allow this group to constantly have fresh, hungry players on the field. Also, Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthier than he was a year ago, which is frightening.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Offense: Jason Peters
Before his Achilles injury, I thought Peters was the best offensive lineman in the NFL. He missed the entire 2012 season, a year in which the Eagles’ offensive line was simply horrible. Other injuries certainly factored into that ineptitude, but getting Peters back in the form we saw pre-injury would go a long way to making this a potentially excellent unit, especially with the addition of Lane Johnson. But therein lies the question: What kind of movement skills will we see from the 31-year-old Peters, a tight end in college who once possessed exceptional quickness, balance and agility?

Defense: Cole, Graham and Curry
By all accounts, the Eagles are going to be a predominant 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly. But Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are prototypical 4-3 defensive ends. Cole and Graham, who somewhat quietly played exceptional football during the second half of the 2012 season, are listed as outside linebackers in this 3-4, and Curry is listed at defensive end. It will be a shame if these three players are misused, and it will be interesting to see their role when camp opens.

Wild card: All new secondary
The Eagles' starting cornerbacks greatly underachieved last year, and the safety play was just terrible. The new Philadelphia regime completely revamped the back end of the defense, and it looks as though the Eagles will have four new starters in the secondary. Philadelphia had an inordinate number of mental errors last season; while it might take some time for this group to jell, it should be improved in that capacity as well as in its overall play.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Offense: Right tackle woes
Robert Griffin III’s immense abilities and Mike Shanahan’s scheme masked a major deficiency at right tackle in 2012. The scheme won’t change and Griffin will have even better on-the-field awareness in his second season -- even if he isn’t as mobile while recovering from injury -- but Washington certainly realized this area of concern and brought in Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood to compete with Tyler Polumbus. My fear is that none of the three is the answer.

Defense: O-Sack-Po?
Much like Peters for the Eagles, Brian Orakpo will be under a microscope when camp opens, as all eyes will be watching to see if he still has his same explosive movement skills post-injury. Far and away Washington’s best pass-rusher, Orakpo and his edge presence were missed in a big way last season, and the Redskins were forced to blitz, exposing their weak secondary, much more than what would have been ideal.

Wild card: New DBs
Again much like in Philadelphia, the Redskins put many of their limited offseason resources into improving a poor secondary. A healthy Orakpo’s pass rush certainly will help, but the Redskins could see as many as three rookies -- David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- playing prominent roles in their secondary early in the season. Rookie cover men rarely enter the league without their share of growing pains.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC East team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Dallas Cowboys: Last offseason, the Cowboys used premium resources to acquire Brandon Carr in free agency and Morris Claiborne in the draft so they could be better equipped to play man coverage on the outside. Then this offseason, they went out and hired Cover 2 guru Monte Kiffin as their defensive coordinator. Kiffin supposedly will incorporate more man coverage into his play calls, but Carr and Claiborne are not ideal players for Cover 2, which will be Dallas’ base coverage. Still, these two, along with nickelback Orlando Scandrick and fourth-round pick B.W. Webb, give the Cowboys an excellent set of cornerbacks overall. Scheme notwithstanding, Claiborne should be much improved in his second season. Safety is another story though. This position was a huge weakness in 2012. Free-agent signee Will Allen is penciled in to start opposite Barry Church, who is highly unproven. The Cowboys used a third-round pick on J.J. Wilcox, but Allen is not starting material and Wilcox is extremely raw. Wilcox has a ton of ability and should be an immediate standout on special teams, but trusting him to read quarterbacks and route combinations as a rookie could be a disaster. To me, safety remains an immediate weakness for Dallas.

New York Giants: There isn’t a lot of change here from 2012 -- and that isn’t really a good thing. Gone is Kenny Phillips and in are Aaron Ross and Ryan Mundy, but this is a franchise that relies on its defensive line to make the defense go -- and the line does look impressive. Safety Stevie Brown made a lot of plays last season and will be asked to replace Phillips on more of a full-time basis alongside Antrel Rolle, whose best trait is probably his overall versatility. At cornerback, the Giants are counting on Prince Amukamara and Jayron Hosley to take noticeable steps forward in their young careers, especially from an overall consistency standpoint. Terrell Thomas returns from yet another major injury and Ross will provide corner depth, but Corey Webster is the player New York absolutely needs to play like he did earlier in his career. In 2012, Webster struggled mightily and Hosley was often beaten, which obviously is a huge concern.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles gave their secondary a total overhaul this offseason. While there was talent in this group a year ago, it collectively made a ton of mistakes and just allowed far too many big plays. Simply said, the Eagles’ secondary was dreadful in 2012. One carryover is Brandon Boykin, who played well as a rookie and should be the ideal nickel cornerback going forward. The starters at corner, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, have plenty of questions around them. I don’t see either player as close to being a true No. 1 cornerback, but if they can show some consistency it will be an improvement for Philadelphia at the position. At safety, the Eagles signed Kenny Phillips from the Giants, an excellent move and a massive upgrade if he stays healthy. They also inked Patrick Chung away from the Patriots. There is much more uncertainty around Chung, who has never stepped up as many expected he would have by now. Earl Wolff, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Curtis Marsh provide the Eagles with young talented depth, but while the secondary has been totally reshuffled, the starters here are far from sure things. But like the rest of Philadelphia’s secondary in 2012, Allen and Coleman had a rough go of it last season.

Washington Redskins: Probably the biggest need area for this team heading into this offseason was the secondary. In free agency, the Redskins added E.J. Biggers, who should be a very solid all-around third cornerback. In the draft, Washington addressed its secondary in a big way, using a second-round pick on David Amerson, a fourth-rounder on Phillip Thomas and a sixth-rounder on Bacarri Rambo. Right now, the starters are DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson at cornerback and Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty at safety. Surely the Redskins would love for Amerson, Thomas and Rambo all to challenge for starting spots right out of the gate, but rookie cover men often struggle. Still, Doughty is very average. Meriweather is returning from injury and has been highly inconsistent and untrustworthy, while Hall is one of the more overrated players in the NFL, who can look great one week and terrible the next. Wilson might be the best member of Washington’s secondary, which is an indictment of the status of this unit overall. The Redskins have, however, added young talent, and the return from injury of Brian Orakpo, their only truly top-notch pass-rusher, also should help the cover men a great deal.
The Washington Redskins surprised people by picking a tight end and not a free safety in the third round of the draft Friday night, and some Redskins fans said they wished the team had taken safety Phillip Thomas in that spot. Well, it turns out the Redskins were right to wait, because Thomas was still there in the fourth round, where the Redskins selected him with the draft's 119th overall pick.

Thomas is a candidate to win the vacant starting free safety job for the Redskins this year. And while that may sound odd to say about a fourth-round rookie, the Redskins have no other strong candidates and this draft is deep at safety. Scouts Inc. rated Thomas the No. 7 safety in this year's draft, and he was the 12th one drafted.

The book on Thomas says he may be a bit undersized and has had some injury issues, but that he reads quarterbacks well and makes good decisions in coverage that help him make plays on the ball. Sounds a lot like what the Redskins need at that free safety spot, and the fact that they were able to get their kind of safety late in the fourth round has to be counted as a victory for Mike Shanahan and the Redskins as they work to fill the remaining holes on their roster without the benefit of cap space.

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