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Redskins players to watch in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Bengals

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Position battles will start to sort themselves out this week

NFL: Washington Redskins-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden left most of the “starters” on the bench in Preseason Week 1, using the game, instead, primarily as a tool for sorting out the pecking order for the 2’s, 3’s and 4’s.

The home game against Cincinnati is likely to see some (not all) first-team players see the field on a limited basis, and that will mean fewer snaps for the guys at the bottom of the roster. By the end of the game, some NFL careers may have already come to an end in the form of ‘dead men walking’ — some players may remain on the roster simply for the purpose of playing in Game 4 to avoid potential injuries to starters.

Against Cincinnati, the focus of the coaching staff is likely to still be more on player evaluation than on winning or losing, as the key objective right now is for coaches to start to firm up who will be on the 53-man roster, who will be invited to join the practice squad, and who will be waived or released.

Mark Tyler published his best-educated-guess at the 53-man roster on Monday, and he’s almost certainly got most of it right and a bit of it wrong. We’ll find out at the end of the month just how good his batting average is.

The key thing to note right now is that the roster isn’t set in stone, and players still have the chance to impress coaches and move up — or the opposite. Sometimes it’s important to watch one player, not necessarily to find out if he makes the roster, but to find out if he is good enough to make another player expendable, creating a small domino-effect on the depth chart.

In this article, let’s look at a few players whose performance against the Bengals may either go a long way towards cementing their status with the Redskins or possibly make another player expendable.

Offensive Line key player - Ross Pierschbacher

Pierschbacher was drafted in the 5th round this year, and while that doesn’t make him a roster lock, his draft status probably makes it likely that the team will want to see him on the 53-man roster. That means his development is critical to at least one other player on the offensive line, because if Pierschbacher is retained on the roster, someone else loses his job.

The key question in my mind with Pierschbacher is whether the Redskins will trust him to be the primary (only) backup to Chase Roullier at the center position. Reports out of training camp indicate that Pierschbacher is still a bit raw overall, even when he is evaluated as a guard, the position he played for three years at Alabama. Is he up to the challenge of, not only improving his technique, but also learning the offense well enough to take over for Chase Roullier at center if Roullier were to be injured early in the season?

Tyler’s projection:

OL - Trent Williams, Ereck Flowers, Chase Roullier, Brandon Scherff, Morgan Moses, Donald Penn, Geron Christian, Wes Martin, Ross Pierschbacher

*If Williams doesn’t report, Tony Bergstrom makes the roster

If the coaches don’t have faith in Peirschbacher to be able to do all that, then they will need to keep Tony Bergstrom on the team. Again, assuming that Pierschbacher’s draft status protects him, then this would require the team to use three OL positions for Roullier, Bergstrom and Pierschbacher. The team would be forced to cut another interior offensive lineman, or else keep 10 players here.

If, on the other hand, the coaches see Pierschbacher as a capable backup center in Week 1, then Bergstrom becomes expendable and a different offensive guard can retained on the 53-man roster in his place (as Mark Tyler projects).

Wide Receiver key players - Terry McLaurin and Josh Doctson

Most camp observers are projecting the three “starting” slots for wide receivers on the Redskins offense to go to Paul Richardson, Terry McLaurin and Trey Quinn.

Terry McLaurin played the first snap against the Browns, then came off of the field. This means that he hasn’t yet proven what he can do on an NFL field in a competitive game; people are projecting him to win the starting job based on his performance in practice. He needs to demonstrate, on the field against Cincinnati’s #1 defensive players, that he is good enough. Remember, he was, based on production, considered by most observers to be the #3 receiver on his college team.

Josh Doctson has had very limited production in his 3 years as a Redskin since being drafted in the first round. He needs to step up and show a lot in this game because he faces two related challenges.

First, Doctson has to try to fight off the challenge from Terry McLaurin, who seems poised to take away Doctson’s status as a “starter”.

If Doctson loses that battle, then he has the second challenge of making the team as a backup. There will be obvious roster and salary advantages for the Redskins if Doctson loses his spot here, so Josh will have to perform well in the remaining preseason games. His draft status may help him a bit here, but he is widely perceived as a Scot McCloughan pick, which means that the front office won’t have much skin in the game if they want to cut him. Also, if he is not seen as a “starter” then his lack of Special Teams play may become more critical.

The coaches have given him opportunities to prove himself for at least the past two seasons, so if he can’t show up and show out against the Bengals and Falcons, I don’t think that Jay or Ike Hilliard would fight that hard for him.

Mark Tyler projects the Redskins to keep 7 receivers:

WR - Terry McLaurin, Trey Quinn, Paul Richardson Jr., Josh Doctson, Kelvin Harmon, Cam Sims, Robert Davis

This is almost unheard of for Jay Gruden, who normally has 6 receivers on the roster and only 5 active on game day.

Unless he wins a starting spot outright, I believe Doctson could lose the battle for a roster spot entirely. Harmon, Sims and Davis all appear to have long-term futures with the Redskins, while Doctson does not. They are all cheaper, younger, and (I believe) willing to play special teams.

Still, cutting Doctson is not the best option — trading him, even for an insubstantial return — would have clear salary cap advantages. $1.2m of his $1.8 salary is guaranteed, so the team would have extra incentive to trade him, even for a swap of 7th round picks (the equivalent of a ham sandwich), as the salary obligation would go with Doctson to his new team.

To clarify a bit, if Doctson is cut outright, there is a $2.57m dead cap hit; if he is traded, the dead cap is just $1.37m, giving the Redskins a $1.2m cap space incentive to find a trade partner, even if the trade consideration is insignificant.

In my mind, Doctson is very much “on the bubble”.

Tight End key players - J.P. Holtz and Matt Flanagan

Mark Tyler projects the Redskins to maintain the status quo at TE:

TE - Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Jeremy Sprinkle

I think there are two issues that could affect this situation. First is the Redskins’ need for more reliable blocking from their tight ends in general. Second is the likelihood that Vernon Davis, who is in the final year of his contract, won’t be playing for the Redskins next season.

Of course, there’s a chance that the Redskins could draft a player in 2020 to replace the hole left by Davis’ expected departure, but Holtz and Flanagan have been around for a while and done pretty well with limited opportunities. Neither player will be expensive, so it seems sensible to keep one of them in 2019.

I think there’s a possibility that one of these guys plays his way onto the roster. This would probably necessitate carrying 4 tight ends, but the option would exist to cut Vernon Davis, saving $4.9m in cap space in doing so. That’s a lot of money for a player who produced only 367 yards and 2 TDs in 2018.

Of the two young tight ends, I’d give the edge to Holtz at the moment, but if one of them sticks, the other is probably gone for good, as Parham, who is a small-school UDFA with good measurables who didn’t look good in limited snaps against Cleveland, is likely to end up as the Practice Squad tight end.

The receiving production and blocking ability displayed by Holtz and Flanagan against the Bengals and Falcons could be critical to both of their futures.

Cornerback key players - Dominique Rodgers-Cromarie and D.J. White

Danny Johnson has been on PUP throughout training camp. He played poorly when he got on the field in 2018, and at this point I don’t think he has any chance of making the active roster to start the season. Adonis Alexander hasn’t played well and he’s been a bit nicked up physically as well. He seems to be a long shot for the active roster right now.

Deion Harris looked bad against the Browns; he would need a Lazarus-like return from the dead to make the roster at this point. Consider James Dorsett’s report on Harris’ game against the Browns:

[T]he rookie UDFA had a pretty poor performance, especially in coverage. He allowed all four targets thrown his way to be caught for 72 yards (team worst), 3 first downs and a touchdown. He was flagged for pass inference on the TD he gave up, but the penalty was obviously declined.

All three of his tackles came on receptions he allowed, which kind of diminishes most of their value. His only saving grace in this regard is that he didn’t miss any tackles and only let those plays gain 10 yards after the catch.

Harris did have one nice play, but even in this case it could’ve been a lot better. He scored a PD on the Redskins’ side of the field, but he should’ve caught the pass. He looked to have a fairly clear path on the return, so he may have well squandered what could’ve been a pick-six opportunity.

If you take those three players (Johnson, Stroman, Harris) out of the equation, there aren’t a lot of decisions left at cornerback. Let’s look at Mark Tyler’s projection:

CB - Josh Norman, Quinton Dunbar, Fabian Moreau, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jimmy Moreland, Greg Stroman

I think the first three names (Norman, Dunbar, Moreau) are given at this point.

The people’s corner, Jimmy F’n Moreland became a Redskins legend last week against the Browns, and it would require an epic collapse or a serious injury at this point to keep him off the active roster.

The two players that I think are vulnerable are Stroman and DRC. Stroman did not play well last season when he was pushed out on the field, but he’s young, with potential to improve, and he plays special teams and has returner skills.

DRC was brought to the Redskins to provide veteran leadership and positional flexibility. I see him more as an insurance policy than an investment. He’s 33 years old and he retired a year ago before “unretiring” to join the Redskins this off-season. He is a one-year break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option at CB, and has no long-term future at the position.

Against the Browns, he was not terribly impressive. Let’s look at the report from James Dorsett:

Dominique Rodgers-Cromatrie- The 33-year-old vet drew the start and was out there for 23 defensive snaps.

DRC did not have his best day in coverage though, especially on the opening drive of the game. In total, he was targeted four times and allowed 2 receptions for 40 yards, 2 first downs and a touchdown. Both catches he gave up, including a 24-yard touchdown, came on the first drive of the night.

Rodgers-Cromartie did record 3 solo tackles, but only one of them came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (3-yard gain on 1st-and-10).

DRC set new career lows last season in games and snaps played (7 and 147).

The question is: Do the Redskins have any better option?

They may. I think the player to watch this week against the Bengals, and then next week against the Falcons, is D.J. White, who was well-regarded by most draft analysts coming out of college, but whose career has gotten derailed over the past couple of years. He may be ready for a comeback.

Here’s James Dorsett again:

D.J. White- The former Chiefs and Colts corner got 48 snaps of work against the Browns. He allowed 2-of-3 targets to be caught but only gave up a total of 14 yards on the plays (0 first downs). He also notched 3 solo takedowns.

That report is hardly definitive, but if White can continue to out-perform DRC in preseason, he may be able to elbow the 12th-year player off the roster.

There would be only a slight cap savings if White replaced DRC, but it would also open up the potential for a 6th or 7th round compensatory pick in the 2020 draft, which, in combination with the more promising long-term future, might be enough incentive for the front office to choose the younger veteran over the older one.

Keep an eye on White and DRC on Thursday; a roster spot may come down to which one plays better, and a draw may go to the younger man based on improved 2019 cap space, better long-term potential, and possible restoration of a 2020 comp pick opportunity.

Defensive Line key player - Ryan Bee

I don’t think there’s any doubt about who the top-5 interior defensive linemen will be. Mark Tyler listed them in his article:

DL - Matt Ioannidis, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Tim Settle, Caleb Brantley

Jay Gruden typically keeps 6 players at this position on the active roster, but I agree with Mark that the opportunity exists to keep only 5 here and use the ‘extra’ position somewhere else.

The question is whether any of the other defensive linemen can play their way onto the roster.

A lot of fans and some journalist seem to assume that the team will keep six (as they usually do) and that the final spot will go to JoJo Wicker. I don’t agree.

First of all, I think that Jonathan Bonner has the better chance, and James Dorsett’s analysis of the first preseason game backs that up:

JoJo Wicker- Wicker started next to Settle and also played 27 snaps. The 2018 UDFA registered one pressure (a hurry) and recorded an assisted tackle which bottled up a Browns’ run from the Washington 2-yard line (1-yard gain).

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t yet fully understand why Wicker has been on several 53-man roster projections. He’s done nothing in the actual league since going undrafted last Spring, and he’s a horrible athlete (4th percentile SPARQ and 0.93 RAS).

However, Wicker was fairly productive in college (102 tackles, 32 TFLs, 12.5 sacks, 4 PDs and 4 forced fumbles at Arizona State), so perhaps that’s at least part of the reason behind the optimism. It just kind of feels like people are penciling him in simply because 3-4 teams typically carry more than five defensive linemen.

Jonathan Bonner- The rookie lineman out of Notre Dame led all Washington defensive linemen with 42 defensive snaps played against the Browns. He recorded a half sack on the final drive of the first half and assisted on a tackle for no gain in the running game that was negated by a Browns’ holding penalty.

Bonner is kind of the opposite of Wicker in that he’s above average athletically, but was a total zero in terms of college production (28 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 PDs and 1 forced fumble in four years).

With all that said, the young DL player that flashed in the Browns game was actually Ryan Bee. Honestly, I have assumed from the time he was signed by the Redskins that Bee would be gone for good after training camp, but it’s hard to ignore what he did last Thursday. Again, let’s look to James Dorsett for a report:

Ryan Bee- Bee got 37 snaps of action and produced a pretty solid stat line. His 4 solo and 5 total tackles both ranked third on the team. One of those tackles came when he teamed up with Maloata to tackle QB David Blough on fourth down and another one went for a sack.

The sack was one of his two pressures in the contest. Bee was the only defender on the roster who recorded more than half a sack (1.0). He made the play on the final snap of the first half. His other pressure in the game was a QB hit.

Bee, like Wicker, filled up the stat sheet in college (200 tackles, 29.5 TFLs, 18 sacks, 7 PDs and 2 forced fumbles at Marshall). Perhaps, we just witnessed the beginning of what will go down as another productive chapter in his football career.

I saw Bee play well, just like everyone else did, but, perhaps because of my negative pre-disposition, I tended to want to dismiss it as coming against Cleveland’s offensive scrubs in the latter part of the game.

Bee may have a chance to grab that final spot on the DL depth chart if he can get some time in the first half against the Bengals and Falcons and show that he can repeat his strong performance. He’s definitely a player to watch this week.

One other pair of players to compare - Jordan Brailford and Troy Apke

Mark Tyler has the Redskins keeping 8 linebackers (4 ILB + 4 OLB) and 5 safeties. I agree on all 8 linebackers, but I was a little surprised to see Mark predict last year’s 4th round pick Apke on the roster while projecting this year’s final draft pick, Brailford, to end up on the practice squad.

Although they play different positions, I could see this coming down to an either/or decision, with Brailford potentially beating out Apke for the roster spot.

It appears that Collins, Nicholson, Everett and Reaves should be the top 4 safeties. The question is whether the team needs to keep a 5th safety - in this case Apke. The Redskins clearly like Apke’s speed and his ability to play special teams, but his on-field performance was marked by bad angles and missed tackles as a rookie.

The only way Apke doesn’t make the team is if another player at a different position shows that he can replace the safety on special teams while offering more value defensively.

I give the advantage to Apke here; he has the stronger draft pedigree, the better athleticism, and the coach’s value his special teams skills.

But...

There is a new DB position coach this season, a new special teams coordinator this season, and a new linebackers coach this season. It’s not beyond the pale to think that a player like Brailford — who is the only healthy 2019 draft pick that Mark Tyler did not project to make the active roster — could earn the trust of Rob Ryan and ST coordinator Nate Kaczor and push Apke off the 53-man roster.

That will require Brailford to significantly out-play Apke throughout the rest of the preseason on both defense and special teams.

This week’s game against the Bengals will be important for both players, and I think Redskins fans will want to watch the two of them closely to see who looks the best.