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Redskins face challenges in continuing special teams improvement

Redskins face challenges in continuing special teams improvement

Redskins’ special teams coach Ben Kotwica has gone from being on the hot seat to being one of the more valued members of the staff. That’s what will happen when you engineer a remarkable turnaround in your unit’s performance.

In 2013 the Redskins’ special teams were historically bad. They gave up three punt return touchdowns and one on a kickoff return. Their average starting point for a drive was the 25.3 yard line, the worst in the league. Their special teams DVOA was minus-12.0 percent, the worst in the NFL by five percentage points.

Enter Kotwica and after showing some progress in 2014 the Redskins finished in the top 10 in special teams DVOA in 2015, ranking sixth at 3.2 percent. They had some issues early on, giving up a game-winning punt return for a touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 1 and getting a punt blocked for a safety at the Giants in Week 3. But they settled in after those first two games and they were solid the rest of the way.

Kotwica faces some challenges when it comes to improving his units. For one thing, he has some holes to fill. Darrel Young and Jeron Johnson, who were 1-2 in special teams snaps last year, both are gone. Deshazor Everett, who was fourth in special teams snaps, may have a tough time making the 53. The status of Kyshoen Jarrett, another key special teams contributor, is very much in doubt due to a nerve injury.

But Scot McCloughan knew that this was happening and he went out and signed free agents David Bruton and Terrance Garvin, veterans known for special teams prowess, this offseason.

“Those guys have been excellent, not only on the field but off the field,” said Kotwica. “They’ve got excellent leadership [skills] and they’ve got some pedigree in playing the special teams part of the game. It’s important to them and it transcends down across the unit.”

Special teams will also benefit from the return of Niles Paul, a key special teams player throughout his Redskins career who missed all of 2015 with a broken ankle.

As always, rookies will be expected to make a special teams contribution. Kotwica noted that second-round pick Su’a Cravens and third-rounder Kendall Fuller were particularly impressive during OTAs and minicamp.

“It’s a good young crop and I’m looking forward to working with them come August,” said Kotwica.

They will also be challenged by the rule book. An experimental rule for 2016 will place the ball at the 25 yard line after a touchback on a kickoff. That has led to speculation that some teams will try to execute high kickoffs that will be fielded inside the five yard line to try to pin teams back instead of booming the ball into the end zone and giving the other team possession at the 25.

The Redskins are working on various scenarios.

“I think that new rule changes a little bit about how employ the ball from a kickoff coverage standpoint and we’ve worked different options on how we want to do that,” said Kotwica. “And it also affects the way you want to return the football. There’s a little bit of both sides there. We’ve worked multiple options so I think the good thing about Dustin is that with his leg strength he gives you that option of hitting the ball with good hang time and good distance. If you want to hit touchbacks I think he’s more than capable of doing that.”

With contact being such a key part of special teams play, it will be difficult to see how the special teams are progressing until they put the pads on in Richmond in six weeks.

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Costly cornerbacks, offseason blueprint

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Costly cornerbacks, offseason blueprint

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, February 17, 25 days before NFL free agency starts.

The Redskin week that was

My weekly look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics on RealRedskins.com and NBCSportsWashington.com.

An offseason blueprint for the Redskins—Should the Redskins focus their free agency money on keeping their own? In addition to unrestricted free agents Zach Brown and Trent Murphy, they need to consider extensions for Brandon Scherff, Preston Smith, and Jamison Crowder. That could chew up a bunch of the approximately $31 million of cap space that they have. They may get some help on the market but most of their improvement should come from the draft and from within.

Redskins offseason will hit warp speed soon—With the exception of the Alex Smith trade, which actually hasn’t happened yet, there hasn’t been much going on with the Redskins. That is going to change soon, check out the post for the calendar and how the events matter for the Redskins.

No mixed messages from Alex Smith—In a radio interview, Alex Smith said that he was “jacked” to be a part of the Redskins. Now, the phrase often repeated here is that you shouldn’t listen to what they say, you should watch what they do. And the moment that he signs the reported four-year extension that he has negotiated with the team, a deal that likely would put him in Washington for the rest of his career, we will see his actions backing up his words. Then we will know.

What we know, and what we think, of the Su'a Cravens situation—This will be a true test of the acumen of the front office. It’s a very tricky situation. The Redskins have to decide if they want to keep Cravens. Should they decide to keep him, there will be a lot of smoothing over of ruffled feelings that would need to be done over and trust in Cravens would have to be restored. If they don’t want him around, they have to make it look like they are willing to go into the season with him in order to be able to trade him. Otherwise, teams may just wait for them to cut him and sign him as a free agent. Again, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.

Tweet of the week

Quarterback is not the only NFL position with rising salaries. The players teams hire to try to stop opposing QBs, cornerbacks, are getting expensive, too. Bashaud Breeland is a good cornerback, not a great one. His coverage skills are solid, he’s a good team player (if a bit of a hothead at times) and his work ethic is not questioned. For a fourth-round pick who everybody thought left Clemson a year too early, he has done well for himself But he hasn’t made a Pro Bowl and he hasn’t even come close enough to be considered a snub. Breeland has eight interceptions in four years in the league with a high of three in 2016.

The price tag for good at cornerback is likely to be in the vicinity of $10 million per season. And good for him if he gets it. But with the Redskins employing Josh Norman, who has cap hits in the range of $14.5 million-$16.9 million over the next three years, it would be difficult to fit him in. Truth be told, Breeland has probably been destined to leave as a free agent ever since Norman signed his contract in April of 2016.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

Timeline  

Days until:

—NFL Combine (3/1) 12
—NFL Draft (4/26) 68
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 204

In case you missed it

  

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Cousins would reportedly look to file grievance if Redskins use franchise tag on him

Cousins would reportedly look to file grievance if Redskins use franchise tag on him

The Redskins might try to franchise tag quarterback Kirk Cousins to try to get some compensation for him as he leaves. But Cousins’ camp might not let that happen without a fight.

According to Albert Breer of the MMQB, Cousins might file a grievance if he is tagged, saying that the Redskins would be violating the spirit of the rules regarding the use of the franchise tag. He would be seeking to have the tag voided because the team clearly isn ’t interested in reaching a long-term deal with him given the acquisition of Alex Smith. The tag is supposed to be used to buy time to get an agreement done, not to squat on a player’s rights in order to trade him.

There is precedent for the tag being used in order to facilitate a trade. In 2009, the Patriots tagged quarterback Matt Cassel. They clearly had no intention of keeping him as they had Tom Brady on the roster. But New England pulled it off, shipping Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs for a second-round pick.

But it is up to the player to object to being tagged and for whatever reason Cassel and his agent went along with the tag and trade rather than fighting for free agency.

It looks like Cousins ’camp won’t go as quietly.

It’s up to the Redskins to make the first move. The window to be able to tag a player opens on Tuesday with the deadline coming on March 6. We will see how things play out after that.

MORE REDSKINS: THE EXPECTATIONS GAME

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page

Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS

and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS