Heading into the the 2016 season, there are several positions on the Redskins that will create some significant roster intrigue. Indeed, many slots may not be be finalized until the last days of the preseason.
Wide receiver, however, is not one of those positions this year.
Save for a monumental surprise, the receiving corps looks to be as stellar as it has been in several years. That certainly doesn't mean that there won't be good competition to keep an eye on, particularly for depth and special teams roles. The ‘Skins enter camp with 13 WRs competing for roster spots. Given that it's been a long and lonely offseason, let's take a moment to refresh our collective memories on who the ‘Skins have lining up on the outside, and who is contending to join them:
Locks: DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, Ryan Grant
In The Mix: Rashad Ross, Maurice Harris, Kendal Thompson, T.J. Thorpe, Valdez Showers, Dez Stewart, Reggie Diggs, Jarvis Turner
DeSean Jackson enters the final year his three-year, $24 million deal and looks to return to form having only suited up in 10 contests last season due to a nagging hamstring injury throughout the year. Jackson has been a game-changer since joining the team after Chip Kelly ran him out of Philly because he didn't understand what "friends" were. However, 2015 season numbers included career-lows in targets (49), catches (30), yards (528), receptions per game (3), and yards per game (52.8). Although he is still the top deep threat on the Redskins, and arguably one of the premier long-ball receivers in the league, there's still a lot for DeSean to prove as he comes back following one of the most challenging years of his career.
Also in the final year of his contract is Pierre Garçon, who returns for his fifth season in Washington, and will line up opposite D-Jax in most formations. Since setting a Redskins record with 113 catches in 2013, passes Garçon’s way have decreased (coinciding with the addition of Jackson), but he still led all Redskins receivers in both yards (777) and touchdowns (6) last year. Despite his overall decrease in targets, Garçon is incredibly efficient and is a perfect compliment to Jackson when he operates to his fullest potential by preventing defenses from doubling either receiver who is covered by a safety over the top with complete predictability.
If Garçon and Jackson can avoid injury and stay on the field, we have the potential to see one of the most potent set of receivers suiting up for this team in years. The team takes a $19.45 million cap hit between the two of them, and with both receivers both coming off the books this offseason it’s highly unlikely they will both return next year. This means that the deployment of first round draft pick, Josh Doctson, is going to be a source of intrigue this season, particularly on how he influences their offensive sets. Because of his ability to sub in for either outside receiver, offering a huge 6’2" target to pass to, his versatility could allow either Jackson or Garçon to shift over into the slot if they choose to deploy a four receiver set. Also, expect to see Doctson to get a ton of looks in red zone packages as well because of his size and ability to elevate for jump balls.
The ‘Skins have been burned by high wide receiver draft picks over the years, but make no mistake, Doctson does not project to be Rod Gardner. Or Devin Thomas. Or Malcolm Kelly. Or Taylor Jacobs. Or Michael Westbrook (are we still talking about him?) Doctson will start off camp on the PUP list after suffering a foot injury last month during practice. He’s also struggled with tendinitis in his Achillies’ tendon too, so keeping an eye on his health situation will be critical in the days leading up to the year.
Jamison Crowder enters his second NFL season as the presumptive slot receiver, having recorded 59 catches (a Redskins rookie record) for 604 yards and 2 TD's in 2015. We saw glimpses last season of what Crowder brings: a ton of speed and quickness. If he's lucky enough to be mismatched with a slower linebackers in coverage, he will see even more opportunities to be a playmaker this year. His 75.6% catch percentage from last season is going to be huge in convincing Kirk Cousins that balls thrown his way will be passes well sent. In addition, Crowder's role as the primary punt returner, and secondary kick returner will increase his value and, frankly, anything that keeps DeSean Jackson from returning punts is probably for the best. Even though he didn't return a kick or punt for more than 16 yards last year and he fumbled four times, Coach Gruden has continually praised Crowder for his development on special teams over the last year and a half, chalking many of his mistakes up to growing pains.
Next we hit our real depth guys who have played a full season with the team: Ryan Grant and Rashad Ross. Grant filled in admirably, if somewhat unexceptionally for DeSean Jackson last season while he was out with his injury. Averaging almost 17 yards per catch, his scoring numbers (2 TDs) and catch percentage (54.8%) were less than stellar, although he showed signs of progress from his rookie season. Grant's familiarity with the offense and his reputation as a consistent and explosive route runner, combined with the organization's increased emphasis on developing talent from within, means he will likely be back in a fill-in capacity with the hope he will continue to progress.
Just a half-step behind Grant is Rashad Ross, who barring catastrophe, won't see many reps when the offense takes the field. Nevertheless his 24.43 yards/ return last year have him back as the primary kickoff returner again entering this season. Of all the receivers who suited up for the ‘Skins last year, he's probably the closest to being on the bubble, but that's wholly dependent on whether someone else can step up and do what he does, even slightly better than how he does it.
Before we get to the guys who start off camp on the outside looking in, I have something brief worth noting: while it's likely the team will keep six WRs, it's definitely not a guarantee. Additionally, take a look at the breakdown for QB passer rating based on offensive formation from a year ago:
Kirk Cousins was markedly better when they lined up with 2 WR/ 2 TE, and produced significantly lower in 3 WR/ 1 TE sets. So it seems to me that from a personnel standpoint, if there are guys on the bubble as they look to fill the final few spots in on the 53 man roster, it may not be at this position unless they can bring something else, such as a contribution on special teams.
Now on to the camp bodies, the guys that if the Redskins were on Hard Knocks, you'd probably get to know every last detail of their life's story on a personal, individual, and emotional level.
Maurice Harris is big and strong and is known for having exceptional hands. At 6'3", 200 pounds he has the physical tools to contribute on both the kick and return teams, having played as a gunner on the punt team at Cal. He will benefit greatly by learning from wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, who was known for throwing his weight around during his playing days. With a good camp, he will likely get an offer to serve on the practice squad at the minimum.
The team recently brought in two burners in Kendal Thompson and T.J. Thorpe, both of whom transferred to different programs while in college. Thompson was a mobile QB at Utah (by way of Oklahoma) and Thorpe had 65 receptions for 895 yards and 6 TDs, graduating from UVA (by way of UNC.)
Perhaps the most noteworthy addition that Valdez Showers adds to camp is the cognitive dissonance of seeing someone wearing #10 actually suiting up and being out on the field for the burgundy and gold. At 6'0", 193 pounds Showers converted from cornerback to safety to running back to wide receiver while at the University of Florida, and could leverage his resume as a versatile threat to make an impression in camp.
You know how you have that one friend who to this day insists that if Leonard Hankerson had been given the chance, he would have been the second coming of Art Monk? Well that guy is probably going to have a lot to say about Dez Stewart. The 6'2", 200 pounder played his college ball at Division II Ohio Dominican, recording 195 career receptions for 3,193 yards with 25 receiving touchdowns in 40 career games. After a brief stint with Tampa Bay after going undrafted, he was the final addition to the Redskins 90 man roster heading into training camp, but also could be one of the first ones cut if he doesn't make an immediate splash.
Reggie Diggs, who went undrafted out of the University of Richmond, has the local ties that could also make him a fan favorite, but unfortunately he starts camp on the PUP list with a knee injury. At 6'3", 214 pounds, Diggs has earned the reputation as a "sleeper prospect" whose athleticism, size, jumping ability, and reliable hands made him one of the top UDFAs coming out of the draft. However, in order to emerge from a very crowded pool of receivers, Diggs will need to recover quickly or risks seeing the team having to move on.
Jarvis Turner earned an invitation to camp as a tryout player at the Redskins rookie mini-camp in May, as a depth insurance option following Doctson's injury. He was a four-year contributor at Alcorn State, and could be a nice story if he can make it through a few rounds of cuts.
Ultimately, the Redskins are going to have a plethora of options at the wide receiver position heading into camp, and can afford to be picky about who they choose to make the club. While the starters (and even second unit) are just about set in stone it will be a lot of fun to see how the depth and reserve players fill out the roster at in the receiving corps for 2016.