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By 4:00 pm EDT on Saturday 5 September, NFL rosters have to be cut to 53 players. In the day or so that follows, 16-player practice squads can be formed. For each team, of the 80 players in camp, as many as 11 will get really bad news (though injury/COVID reserve lists mean that some teams might release less than 11 guys). One thing this means is that the bloodbath on cut down day won’t be as extensive this year. More NFL players than ever before — 69 per team — will have jobs when the season starts, and with ten fewer players in camp (80 instead of 90), that means fewer difficult decisions for the coaches to have to make.

The NFL season kicks off on Thursday, 10 September when the Texans visit the world-champion Chiefs on Thursday night. The Redskins open their season at home against the Eagles on Sunday 13 September.

I don’t know about anybody else, but in the absence of preseason games, the final week of training camp kind of snuck up on me. As the off-season training program at Ashburn has progressed, I have devoured Twitter reports and, while I may have missed a few, I have tried to watch every training camp press conference available — and on most days of training camp there have been three media sessions.

My head is full of impressions from those reports and press conferences, and I thought I might share some of what I think, and air some of the questions that remain in my head as we come into the home-stretch of training camp and roaring into the regular season like a passenger train with a faulty brake system.

I’ll take the approach of discussing position groups. I am not attempting to project the final 53, nor am I trying to comprehensively discuss every player on the roster. Instead, I just want to share thoughts and questions that have stood out to me over the past month.

Defensive Line

I’m gonna start with defense today and with what is expected to be the Washington Football Team’s strongest unit. The player that is at the top of my mind is Montez Sweat, in part because Coach Rivera talked about him in his Friday press conference, saying that, despite the challenges of the pandemic affected off-season, Sweat had “transformed himself”. Rivera added:

He came back a little bit stronger, a little thicker, more lean muscle mass. I think Montez has really responded to the opportunity he has in front of him, and that’s really to be part of a new defense, help set a tone for this defensive unit and this football team.

Montez Sweat had a good rookie season, though it wasn’t spectacular. As a second year player, he should take a big step forward, and with Chase Young likely lining up on the other side of the defense, opposing offenses are going to be facing a lot of pressure.

Linebacker Jon Bostic, who was here last year, talked a little bit about the defensive line, and the DEs in particular:

Now they’re going to attack. They’re going to make people deal with them — especially the defensive end position; they just won’t be dropping in coverage as much. Last year, they had to drop in coverage a lot. They had to understand a lot more coverages than they’re being asked to this year. Now, we want those guys to get after the quarterback and go hunt. We don’t want them thinking as much, let the back end do the thinking and let them get after the quarterback and change the game that way.

Like most Washington fans, I’m excited to see what this group can do, and I don’t have any huge question marks about the position group in my mind.

Linebackers

I do have a lot of questions about the linebacking group.

  • How much will Thomas Davis see the field?
  • Will Reuben Foster be healthy enough to play? How sharp will he be after two years off of NFL fields?
  • When it comes to Cole Holcomb and Shaun Dion Hamilton, does either player start or get much playing time, or are they likely to spend a lot of time watching the game from the sidelines?
  • Can the team keep both Kevin Pierre-Louis and Khaleke Hudson, or does one of them find himself without a seat when the music stops?

There are just so many questions that I don’t think will be answered for at least a week.

Cornerbacks

Are these guys any good?

Can we assume that the problem has been coaching and scheme related, and that with a new sheriff in town the communication will be better and the assignments clearer, allowing talented players to play better?

Kendall Fuller returns with a Super Bowl ring, but there have been mutters from some fans and sports writers that he had his best days in DC and may be overrated based on what he showed in KC. Also, there seems to be a lot of disagreement whether his best position is on the boundary or in the slot...or at safety. I’m expecting Kendall Fuller to play 90% of the defensive snaps and I expect him to play well.

Ronald Darby was, on the whole, a disappointment to Philly fans, but he has played well in the past. His injury issues as an Eagle started on the field against the burgundy & gold when he suffered an ugly ankle injury. Can he and his new team get well together? I hope so. I think the coaches are counting on him, both because of Rivera’s comments about him when asked, and the fact that he was one of the players who talked to the media this past week. The ability for the Washington defense to stop opposing offenses may rely largely on Darby’s abilities.

Fabian Moreau has looked very good at times and very bad at other times. He seems to be more suited to playing boundary corner as opposed to covering in the slot. I’m hoping that 2020 marks a breakout year for him, but, again, it feels like we’re gonna have to wait and see what happens when the teams take the field.

The other guy who has a chance to answer questions is last year’s 7th round pick, Jimmy Moreland, “the People’s Corner”. He brought a lot of energy to the field last year and had some exciting plays. It’ll be interesting to see if he can take the next step, or whether he was just an occasional bright spot on a terrible Manusky defense.

Safety

Landon Collins seems poised to have a better season than he did in 2019. The real story is at free safety.

Prior to training camp, I said repeatedly that anybody who thought the starting free safety would be anyone other than Sean Davis hadn’t been paying attention. I was completely sold on the idea that he was the presumptive starter. Well, there’s been no mention of Davis in camp from beat reporters — it’s been all Troy Apke.

On Tuesday, Ron Rivera was talking after practice about the fact that Apke had blown up Terry McLaurin on a play in practice:

I’ll talk to Troy about that a little bit later, but it’s hard to fault guys that are playing hard. It’s just a fact of knowing how to play when you’re in shells and being aware of who you’re playing against. We’d’ve loved if Troy had been aware that was Terry coming up the seam [and] give right of way to the offensive guy so we don’t have collisions like that, especially when we’re in helmets and shells.

By Friday, Rivera was praising Apke for having learned from the experience:

One thing I talked about with Troy the other day was, ‘Part of your position will be situational awareness, field awareness. One thing that will really tell me that you’re getting it is when you go downhill to make a play like that in practice and all of a sudden you realize who that guy is and you pull off just at the right time. That, to me, is when a guy gets it and he understands situational awareness. You follow what I’m saying?’

Young guys that don’t know any better just go in and hit everything that moves. Guys that understand, that are smart that see the big picture, they’ll know when to pull out of the way and not create that big collision, especially with a guy like Terry, a player with Terry’s abilities. Again, you’ve got to take care of your teammates, and that was one of the things I kind of explained to him.

The comparison from what happened [on Tuesday] to what happened today is exactly what I was talking about. That’s exactly the point.

I’m sure fans will be thrilled if the light has come on for Apke; I’ll remain skeptical until I see him tackling effectively on an NFL field. Still, Ron Rivera seems aware of the knock on his safety and addressed it recently:

I had an old teammate, Dan Hampton, say: ‘The problem with practicing fast is sometimes it gets you in the wrong place quicker.’ But, with Troy right now, he’s doing the things that we need him to. He’s learning those things.

One thing that...people talk about is angles. He’s really learning those. He’s putting the time into them, and that’s why he’s putting himself in the position to make plays. I think he’s improved his angles and he’s playing with a little more confidence and a little bit more tempo.

I guess if Apke is impressing Ron Rivera with his development then I shouldn’t worry. Until I see it for myself though, I’ll bank on Sean Davis being ready to step up when his number is called.

Week 1 starters against the Eagles look to be Collins and Apke.

Quarterback

There are no mysteries here. Dwayne Haskins Jr. is the starter. His attitude and preparation this season seem to be be night and day different from a year ago. I expect him, in 2020, to establish himself as the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be.

The only real surprise to me is that Alex Smith was cleared to practice. I had envisioned him on PUP throughout the off-season and then on IR for the balance of 2020. There’s no future for him in DC as long as Haskins is healthy, and it’s hard to imagine him ever playing in live action on an NFL field again — but then, he’s already shocked me with what he’s done in his return from injury. Alex will be on the 53 — I don’t think the organization has any good alternatives — but should be inactive every week.

Kyle Allen was brought to DC because he is a young, healthy quarterback who is familiar with Scott Turner’s offensive system. He should hold a clipboard for 16 games as long as Haskins remains healthy.

Running back

This is a really interesting group, though with Derrius Guice taking himself out of the picture, things are a bit less opaque.

Adrian Peterson should line up at RB for the first offensive play against the Eagles. Ron Rivera loves AD and the guy wants to play long enough to set some more NFL career records. He’ll be motivated and fresh to start the season and I think Rivera will want to use him a lot, though likely not as much as Bill Callahan did.

This week’s media sessions seemed enlightening to me in a couple of ways. One of them was the matching of comments from Jon Bostic and Ron Rivera.

Let me toss an extra comment in here... I regularly hear coaches around the league talk about statistics that are highly correlated to winning, sometimes seeming to confuse cause and effect. The most common example is the idea that when a team runs more (more attempts, more yards or both) they win a high percentage of their games. Coaches draw the conclusion that they will win more games if they run the ball more. That’s flawed reasoning that confuses cause and effect. Typically, the driver behind the stat is the other way ‘round — teams run more when they have a big lead in the fourth quarter, while teams pass more when they are behind and feeling desperate. It’s winning that results in more running, not running that results in more winning.

Here’s a quote from Jon Bostic on Friday:

[Coach Rivera is] showing us the right ways to practice, showing us the right things we’re going to have to do to win ball games, giving us statistics showing if we’re able to play this type of style of football, we’re going to have success.

This grabbed my attention because Coach Ron had talked about two stats earlier in the week.

The emphasis on the defensive side is to take the ball away.

I showed these guys a very interesting stat. [The Panthers] from 2013 to 2017, when we won the takeaway battle, we won 92 percent of the time. The stat here for this team when they won the takeaway battle was only 68 percent of the time. So, there’s a huge disparity, in my opinion, in your attitude and the way you look at things.

We’ve got to take care of the football, and on the inverse, we’ve got to get the football. We’ve got to take it away. I just believe very strongly in that. I think it’s very indicative of mentality.

I mentioned that stretch from 2013 to 2017 when I was [in Carolina]. We won 72 percent of the time when we rushed for 100 yards on offense.

So, again, being physical, being a downhill football team doesn’t just apply to being a defensive unit. It also applies to being an offensive unit. We’ve got to be physical. We’ve got to play downhill. We’ve got to get after our opponents.

I’m not sure that I buy Coach’s conclusions from these analytics, but I think they tell us some things about what to expect from the Football Team this season; aggressive defense that will try to sack the quarterback and create turnovers combined with an offense that wants to establish the run, be physical and “play downhill”.

I think that the running backs will be very important to this offense, and I think that Peterson will be part of Rivera’s strategy to aim for 100 yards of rushing per game in an effort to win 72% of the time.

John Keim tweeted this on the 24th:

I think the thing I’m looking forward to seeing most is how they use their RBs during the season and the action that comes off it. That’s where their skill talent lies; it will be used and at times creatively. We see things now; can’t report. I think it’ll be fun.

So, Rivera wants to run the ball to win, but the architect of the offense is Scott Turner, who we have been led to believe will run a jet-motion offense with a lot of versatility and misdirection.

What seems to have come through loud and clear over the past week or two is that this offensive scheme will look a lot different from what we’ve seen in DC recently. In fact, I think the Turner-Haskins offense may be just as surprising as what we saw from Shanahan-Griffin in 2012, albeit the two offenses won’t look at all the same.

I sense a pattern in comments from players talking about the offense.

RB Adrian Peterson:

A lot of guys are excited about what they’re asking us to do. We have some big roles in this offense, being able to spread a defense out and throw different looks, really make it challenging for a defense to stop us.

WR Stephen Sims Jr.:

RBs J.D. [McKissic] and [Antonio] Gibson and those guys are going to come out the backfield and make plays. They’ll line up in the slot, get some screens, run a couple routes and things like that. It’s definitely going to give defenses a lot of different looks [and] speed here. Me and Terry line up on the same sides here, but we still have J.D. or Antonio on the other side in the slot, so we’re giving the defense a lot of looks. They have to play the whole field. They have to play us honest. Last year I felt it was a little cover two to Terry and somebody else make a play. I don’t think they’ll be able to do that to us this year.

TE Logan Thomas:

Knowing the offense and seeing what they’ve done with other guys, like [Carolina receiver] Curtis Samuelthe way they gave him the ball on a couple jet sweeps — I know they know how to use skillsets and want to use those skillsets. Like I said earlier, it makes the defenses think. If you make the defenses think, it makes it a little easier on the offenses.

Rivera has had consistent praise for five running backs: Peterson, Barber, McKissic, Gibson and Love. What has surprised me is that Ron has, at times, gone out of his way to mention Barber and say how well he is doing, and he seems to mention Barber’s name near the top of the list regularly (my own theory is that coaches tend to talk about players in the order they think of them on the depth chart).

The guy who seems to get the faintest praise from Rivera is Bryce Love, yet I don’t sense that the coach doesn’t like him, just that Ron likes a lot of people in the RB room. Early on, I thought Barber was the most likely to get cut, but now I’m not so sure. While I don’t really think there’s room on the roster for five running backs, I wouldn’t be flabbergasted if the coaches kept all five of them with the idea that Gibson and McKissic can line up as slot receivers if needed..

At least one person seems to agree with me:

It’ll be interesting to see how the team handles this position. I think Peterson is a stone cold lock for this season. The team used a 4th round pick on Love and a 3rd on Gibson. The coaches seem to like McKissic’s abilities and, as I mentioned, Barber seems to have made an impression. I still wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of trading away a RB next week in return for, say, a tight end or offensive lineman.

The guy I think the coaches are counting on to add a lot of the versatility they want in the offense is Antonio Gibson. Interestingly, when Rivera was asked on Friday to describe Gibson at the moment, he initially gave just one word:

“Confused”

He went on to elaborate.

We’ve put a lot on him, and he’s handled it very well. But, you can see sometimes it gets to him. He’s a great young man. I really love his demeanor and his approach to things. When he does it right, you do see that athleticism, you do see that burst, you see that ability. He’s an exciting young, dynamic player.

The thing is that we’ve tried to back off on him at times, and when we’ve done that, you really do see him making things happen. But, when you do that, he only has a limited amount of plays so we’ve got to throw back on him again. Because again, having him on the football field helps us be a better football team. He’s done a nice job for a rookie. He’s got a maturity about him already that a lot of rookies don’t have, so I’ve been fairly pleased with his progress.

It’s clear that Scott Turner wants to do a lot with Gibson, but the rookie may need time to grow into the role envisioned for him. What seems certain is that he will be on the 53-man roster come next Saturday night.

Wide Receivers

One of the comments that really stood out to me this week came from Ron Rivera when he was asked, based on his time coaching the Panthers, why he liked big receivers:

Because they block.

We want big, physical guys that are willing to go inside and make the tough blocks. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the blocking up front that pops the big run as much as it is having a receiver come down inside and either getting in the way of the linebacker or taking the safety out of the play. That’s what’s attractive about big receivers.

Secondly, is they’re good, friendly targets for quarterbacks. A nice big, long set of arms out there gives a quarterback a good catch radius to throw the ball at.”

There’s a coach getting his philosophy out there. I don’t think there’s any question that McLaurin and Steven Sims are roster locks. Antonio Gandy-Golden was drafted in the 4th round by these coaches, so his name is written in pen as well. I think the team signed Dontrelle Inman on August 4th for a reason, and I don’t think it was so they could cut him again on September 5th, but I could be wrong.

The guy who may benefit from coach’s stated preference for big bodied receivers is third-year receiver Cam Sims who is 6’5” and 214 pounds. He’s been on IR or a practice squad guy for most of his two years in DC, with some brief promotions to the active roster. This season probably marks the best and last opportunity for the 24-year-old to establish himself as an NFL receiver.

Much as it surprises me to say it, I think Trey Quinn could make the 53-man roster — unless the coaches keep 5 RBs with the idea that Gibson and McKissic can play slot if needed.

If they keep 5 RBs, then they probably have only 5 WRs, and Quinn could lose out to Gibson’s versatility.

The competition for the final receiver slot is, I think, between Cam Sims, Darvin Kidsy and Isaiah Wright, with one of the losers going to the practice squad. Sims and Kidsy both have some NFL experience. Sims offers the big body advantage while Kidsy offers more speed. Isaiah Wright may be a dark horse, but I think the team sees him as the backup (from a versatile skillset standpoint) for Antonio Gibson, and I think they’re gonna want to keep him around to protect the offensive scheme if it’s reliant on what Gibson (and, to a lesser degree, Wright) can do.

Tight ends

It’s absolutely no surprise that Logan Thomas has emerged as the apparent #1 TE this season. He was the only player at the position to get a real financial commitment from the team, and he was signed to a 2-year deal that included a $2.2m signing bonus.

The real surprise has been the stream of reports that Marcus Baugh has been getting a ton of work as the second tight end. Baugh was an off-season free agent signing from Carolina that was dismissed by most people (including me) as a “camp body” contract. Now, we keep hearing people talk about his “athleticism”.

Logan Thomas:

Me and Marcus have got a good relationship. He’s a good kid. He’s funny, he’s smart and he works hard. He’s a very athletic guy, so hopefully between the two of us we can do some stuff.

Ron Rivera:

Marcus Baugh is probably the most athletic out of all of them.

It seems like these two guys (Thomas and Baugh) will be on the roster when the Eagles come to town. With Thaddeus Moss going to IR, the real questions are who the third tight end will be, and whether the team might keep a 4th.

Jay Gruden seemed to love “joker” tight ends that were really more like big wide receivers. Given Rivera’s comments about wanting to see receivers block, I’m thinking that the Football Team tight ends in 2020 are likely to have a bigger role as blockers than the Team’s fans have grown accustomed to, that the TEs will be more closely related to the OL than the WR group, and that the expansion of the pass game will focus more on the running backs. In other words, I think the type of tight end these coaches are looking for is different, and that we need to evaluate the TEs on the roster differently than we did under Jay.

Offensive Line

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chase Roullier is the starting center, Brandon Scherff is the right guard and Morgan Moses is the right tackle.

I certainly had been a proponent of the idea that Cornelius Lucas could challenge Morgan Moses at RT, but I don’t think I’ve even heard Lucas’ name mentioned in a camp report this month.

The question marks are on the left side of the line. It appeared that Geron Christian Sr. was the emerging favorite to start at left tackle, and his stock got a big boost when he was sent into the media room for a press conference this week. As I mentioned, Lucas seems to be invisible, and whatever opportunity Saahdiq Charles had to win the LT job suffered a setback when he lost significant time to injury during training camp.

The biggest question mark seems to be at LG. Wes Martin & Was Schweitzer seemed to be in a 2-man battle for the position early on, but the Football Team didn’t stand pat; instead, they held workouts and signed two free agent offensive linemen about a week ago.

One of those guys, Joshua Garnett, is listed by the WFT as a guard. Rivera was asked about him on Friday:

Joshua is a former first-rounder. The guy’s got a tremendous skillset, came from a really good program in Stanford. His skillset I think fits the style of blocking we have as opposed to some of the other offenses he’s been in. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. That’s one of the things I’ve told you guys, we’re going to rotate guys around to see who fits.

I get the sense that the coaches are still undecided about the makeup of the OL group, and the LG spot in particular. A lot of players seem to be in the mix there, and I’m not convinced that Christian has the LT spot locked down.

I think we could see more than one player start at LG or LT this season as coaches continue to tinker in search of the right combination of players. I also wouldn’t rule out a player-for-player trade next week, or a waiver pickup or free agent signing after other teams make roster cuts next Saturday.

Here’s what seems to be true, however: the offensive line appears to be the weakest position group for the Washington Football Team, and the one that seems most likely to be an impediment to winning football games.