OFFENSE (#15 total yardage, #12 rushing, #14 passing, #18t scoring):
Washington made a late playoff run in 2007, but the tragic loss of Taylor took a definite toll on the team. Shortly after the season ended, Gibbs decided it was time to move on. The search to replace him turned into a soap opera: owner Dan Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato strung along heir apparent Gregg Williams, making him interview multiple times while sending out overtures to seemingly every big-name coach in the phone book. When none of those moves worked out, the Redskins let Williams walk and turned to the man they’d already hired as their offensive coordinator, former Seahawks quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn. The 55-year-old Zorn enters the job without previous head coaching experience at any level, but with a firm grasp of the Mike Holmgren offense that helped turn Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck into Super Bowl quarterbacks.
“It’s an open offense that’s going to give a lot of people opportunities to make plays,” said running back Clinton Portis, “and that’s what you ask for when you’ve got as much talent as we’ve got on the team. You look for everyone to be a contributor, and I think this offense is going to open it up for a lot of people to come in and contribute something.”
When healthy, Portis is one of the best backs in the NFL. He finished sixth in the league in rushing last year with 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns, adding another 389 yards on 47 receptions, and should be a perfect fit for Zorn’s playbook. He’s no fan of preseason games, but may get in for a series or two against Buffalo. Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright return as his backups. 284-pound fullback Mike Sellers mostly served as a punishing lead blocker in previous coordinator Al Saunders’ scheme, but did get a couple of touches per game.
One of Zorn’s first tasks upon arrival was to upgrade the receiving corps. Starters Antwaan Randle El (51 catches-728 yards, one touchdown in 2007) and Santana Moss (61-808-3 TDs) remain, but Brandon Lloyd, Keenan McCardell, and Reche Caldwell all moved on. Judging by their 2007 production, they won’t be missed. To replace them – and add some much-needed size at the position – Washington spent second-round picks on receivers Devin Thomas (Michigan State, 6-2, 208) and Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma, 6-4, 227), and tight end Fred Davis (USC, 6-4, 257). However, both rookie wideouts are dealing with injuries, and neither one is likely to play against Buffalo. The much-hyped Davis may see some time in two-TE sets, but starter Chris Cooley (66-786-8 TDs) made his first Pro Bowl in 2007 and remains quarterback Jason Campbell’s most reliable outlet.
Campbell, a first-round pick in 2005, showed promising signs of developing into a quality NFL passer before dislocating his kneecap against Chicago in early December. After Campbell’s injury, Todd Collins came in and piloted the Redskins to a playoff berth, leading some observers to suggest a potential training-camp competition for the starting job. Won’t happen – Zorn knows Campbell is his guy. With Mark Brunell moving on, Washington drafted NCAA career passing-touchdown leader Colt Brennan (Hawaii). He looked good in the second half of Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game, completing 9-of-10 passes for two touchdowns.
The starting offensive line is intact for the first time since right tackle Jon Jansen broke his ankle in the 2007 season opener. They form a solid and experienced unit: center Casey Rabach, in his eighth year, is the youngster of the group. He’s flanked by Pete Kendall and Randy Thomas at guard, with elite left tackle Chris Samuels protecting Campbell’s blind side. Reserves Todd Wade and Stephon Heyer will both miss this game, which leaves Jason Fabini as the only veteran on the second-string line. Look out, Todd.
DEFENSE (#8 total yardage, #4 rushing, #16 passing, #20 scoring):
After injuries wiped out the depth chart at defensive end – Phillip Daniels (ACL) and reserve Alex Buzbee (Achilles tendon) were both lost for the season on the first day of training camp – the Redskins dealt two future draft picks to Miami for dancing sensation (and playmaking DE/LB) Jason Taylor. The six-time Pro Bowl selection, whose 117 career sacks and 41 forced fumbles lead all active players, will line up at left end for defensive coordinator Greg Blache. Is he still quick enough to outmaneuver the road-graders at right tackle, or will he wear down when teams run at him? We’ll see. Andre Carter, the incumbent on the right side, led the team with 10.5 sacks in 2007. Anthony Montgomery and Kedric Golston are locked in a heated competition for the right tackle slot, next to Cornelius Griffin. The Redskins also acquired former Vikings first-round pick Erasmus James in the offseason, but he’s recovering from his second knee injury in as many years and is nowhere near ready to play.
London Fletcher was a definite upgrade from Lemar Marshall at middle linebacker, leading the team in tackles and earning a selection as a Pro Bowl alternate. He’s flanked by Marcus Washington (Sam) and Rocky McIntosh (Will). There isn’t much depth at the position other than special-teamers Khary Campbell and H.B. Blades, so the Redskins brought in free agent Alfred Fincher last week.
Fred Smoot starts opposite Shawn Springs at cornerback, with former first-round selection Carlos Rogers still working his way back from an ACL tear. There’s plenty of room for improvement here; Washington ended last season with just 14 interceptions, fewer than all but five other teams, and five of those picks were made by Sean Taylor.
LaRon Landry, the sixth overall selection in the 2007 draft who’s already shown loads of potential, takes over Taylor’s spot at free safety. He and strong safety Reed Doughty, the former Division I-AA All-American, should only get better with a full offseason to work together. Don’t expect to see either Springs or Landry on the field Saturday night, though, as both are nursing minor injuries. Reserve corners Leigh Torrence and Justin Tryon should see significant action, and the team is pleased with the progress of rookie safeties Chris Horton and Kareem Moore.
Shaun Suisham was 18-of-20 on field goal attempts inside 40 yards last year and 29-of-35 overall, solidifying a recent trouble spot. The team used a sixth-round pick on punter Durant Brooks (Georgia Tech) in April; the reigning Ray Guy Award winner should present a strong challenge to incumbent Derrick Frost. Old friend Ethan Albright, now in his 14th season, is the long-snapper. Cartwright returns kickoffs, averaging 25.8 yards per runback last year. The punt-return job, previously filled by Randle El with mediocre results, should be wide open. Coordinator Danny Smith – yeah, that Danny Smith – has apparently figured out how to coach coverage teams since he left Buffalo. Those units were outstanding in 2007, ranking third in the league on kickoffs and No. 6 on punts.
WR: Thanks to Josh Reed’s aching back, No. 2 pick James Hardy could get some repetitions with the starters against an underwhelming Redskins secondary. (Hardy has a tender hamstring, though, so he may not see much action.) The battle at the bottom of the depth chart is intriguing; pay close attention to Justin Jenkins and Steve Johnson, the consensus top two choices for the No. 5 slot. Or will the Bills keep six wideouts?
TE: Will Robert Royal still be the starter? We keep hearing good things about Derek Schouman, and it surely would be nice to have an above-average downfield option at the position for the first time since ... ever?
OL: Is Duke Preston closer to taking Melvin Fowler’s job, or falling completely off the roster? Depends on which website one believes. Personally, I’ll be interested in the progress of Christian Gaddis. And if Andre Carter plays a significant amount of snaps, you know we’ll all be watching Langston Walker.
DL: Finally, we get to see Marcus Stroud hit someone in an opposing uniform. Just how much will his presence open up the outside rush lanes, anyway? And how’s third-round pick Chris Ellis coming along?
LB: As with Stroud, I’m anxious to see Kawika Mitchell in action. If both live up to our expectations, they should make enough of a difference to boost the defense out of the depths of the league rankings.
DB: I don’t know if the coaching staff would consider such a move, but I wouldn’t mind a bit if McGee sits out a good chunk of the preseason so the kids can get some extra work. There’s been a lot of recent hype about Reggie Corner, but how will he look in live action? And whither first-rounder Leodis McKelvin? Is Ko Simpson ready?
One more thought: The Turk Schonert Era begins Saturday night. Let’s see what he’s got hidden in that playbook ...
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