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Nothing soft about a new GM's approach in Washington

AP Photo/Nick Wass

RICHMOND, Va. -- Pushed around for years by bigger, tougher teams -- it showed in the NFL standings -- the Washington Redskins had a tissue-soft roster and organizational culture. But after general manager Scot McCloughan's first offseason in charge, one thing is clear: The GM could see he inherited a team used to being bullied.

"Big guys and tough guys," Washington running back Alfred Morris said, alluding to McCloughan's main tenets of roster construction. "Just look at what he did. It's obvious he wants big, tough guys who set the [tone]. And you can never have too many big, tough guys."

No argument here.

For the bumbling Redskins -- sorry, there's no better way to describe a team that has finished last in the NFC East six of the past seven seasons -- to become relevant again on the field, McCloughan must succeed at a rebuilding project that is as much about a major change in philosophy as it is the need to significantly upgrade every position group. Fortunately for the Redskins, McCloughan already has succeeded at the approach: He laid much of the foundation for the San Francisco 49ers' recent revival.

Granted, as the Redskins open training camp here Thursday, McCloughan has a lot of heavy lifting to do. McCloughan will need more time to undue years of failed strategies. He's off to a good start, however, with what appear to be several big building blocks in place. As always, it starts up front.

Under former head coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins utilized an outside-stretch-zone-blocking system. Shanahan preferred nimble, athletic linemen. Usually, those guys aren't the biggest players at their positions. Shanahan set the agenda. And it made sense for the Redskins to stick with what worked -- they did lead the NFL in rushing in 2012 -- after Jay Gruden replaced Shanahan before last season. Of course, with a relatively smallish offensive line by league standards, the Redskins, as you would expect, were often overpowered in pass protection in 2014.

There was another problem: Washington was only equipped to run stretch-zone stuff. Gruden wanted to incorporate power plays but couldn't. This season, he should have options.

McCloughan used the fifth overall pick on broad-shouldered tackle Brandon Scherff (6'5", 320 pounds) and a fourth-rounder on guard Arie Kouandjio (6'5", 315), a mauling guard from Alabama. After being widely considered the best run-blocker in college football last year, Scherff opens camp as the starting right tackle. Although the powerful Kouandjio is expected to be a backup this season, he fits McCloughan's long-term plan to get bigger, tougher and better everywhere.

It's something the GM has done before.

In San Francisco, it was tough guys at every position, hard hitters on defense, a power running game, maulers along the offensive line. He wasn't around to enjoy it, but much of what McCloughan was instrumental in adding formed the core of the 2011-2013 49ers teams that won 36 games and were No. 2 in total defense each season. They also ranked eighth, fourth and third in rushing yards in those seasons. That's the formula McCloughan has brought to Washington, a formula his head coach in covets.

"The last time I checked, football [is] a tough sport," Gruden said. "We're working to try to change our approach, our mentality, to [add] some bigger, tough, physical football players."

Not only through the draft. In free agency, McCloughan focused on the defensive line, signing, among others, massive nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton -- listed at 331 pounds, he's probably closer to 370 -- and strongman defensive end Stephen Paea, who set a bench press record at the 2011 NFL scouting combine. But McCloughan's strategy isn't confined to the lines.

Imposing second-round pick Preston Smith (6'5", 271) will compete to start at outside linebacker. Third-rounder Matt Jones (6'2", 231) is the type of big back around whom a power running game can be built. 

While the recent 49ers comparison is fair, in a sense, McCloughan's goal is also to construct an old-school roster reminiscent of those that Redskins Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs coached while winning three Super Bowl championships. "With this division and playing games [late in the season], and hopefully in the playoffs all the way through, you're going to get bad-weather games," McCloughan said after the draft. "We need to be able to win up front. We need to have big guys come off the ball and move people."

Show me a general manager who isn't interested in winning along the lines and I'll show you one who is unemployed. McCloughan's outlook isn't exactly groundbreaking. General managers, though, aren't created equal.

McCloughan is considered among the game's best talent-evaluators. He's a scout's scout, and "when you have a guy who really has [an eye for talent] like he does, and he wants big guys, that's fine with me," said left tackle Trent Williams, who at 6'5", 337 pounds is among the biggest and toughest guys on Washington's roster.

"Different guys have different ways of doing things. I really don't know if there's one right way that everybody does it. But his way has worked in the past with other guys."

One day, the Redskins and their fans may recall the 2015 draft as fondly as the 49ers and their supporters look back on drafts McCloughan was a part of during his time in the Bay Area. "It's a big man's game," McCloughan said.

It's a tough man's game as well. That's what McCloughan is teaching the Redskins. And as they follow his lead, size will matter.