When we look at if a team will improve from year to year we often make the mistake of focusing on players brought in from the outside. Who did they sign? Who did they draft? That ignores the fact that teams often make their greatest strides through improvement from the players they already have on their rosters. In particular, players often made great leaps from their rookie seasons to their second years and that improvement can make a team better without adding a new player.
One of the players the Redskins are hoping can make that leap is defensive end Anthony Lanier.
“We’re really, really excited about Anthony Lanier,” coach Jay Gruden said during the NFL meetings in Phoenix this week.
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A double “really” from the head coach warrants a closer look. Nobody was particularly excited last year when the Redskins signed Lanier as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama A&M. While there was some buzz about him during the offseason program and in training camp he was thought to be a practice squad candidate at best. It was a major surprise when he made the 53-man roster in September. The team cut defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis, a fifth-round draft pick, and used the roster spot for Lanier.
“We didn’t want to risk losing a big defensive lineman that has some pass rush ability,” Gruden said last September on the decision to keep Lanier. “We’re going to try to keep him here to develop him.”
Lanier’s development came along slowly. He was inactive the first seven weeks of the season before taking the field for the game against the Bengals in London. Over the next three games he played 48 snaps, most of them in nickel situations. He got three QB pressures and recovered a fumble. While he didn’t have a huge impact, he was showing that he could learn on the job.
He played a few snaps in the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas before he got kicked in the leg, causing an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The early end to his season did not prevent Lanier from making a big impression on Gruden.
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“We do one on ones almost every day,” said Gruden. “That’s one drill that I watch diligently every day. One on one pass rush so I get to see how our offensive line is doing, that’s how games are won in my opinion. He was a guy who was most difficult for our guys to block. He was not a very natural rusher, either, he was just doing it on pure power, length.
“I think the more he works coming out of his stance, getting off on the snap count, hand usage, all these things that [new defensive line] coach [Jim] Tomsula will work with him, he’s got a chance to be really, really good.”
Another double “really” from the coach. It’s unrealistic to expect huge production out of Lanier, who still will be learning on the job. But if he can stay on the field and pick up four to six sacks and draw some attention away from edge rushers Ryan Kerrigan, Junior Galette, and Preston Smith he could be quite an asset.