Over the next few weeks, Insiders Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will take another position-by-position look at the Redskins’ 2016 depth chart as the team enjoys some R&R ahead of training camp. Some positions are easy to handicap. Others are have moving parts and, thus, are more complex. This much, however, is not in question: A player is not on the 53-man roster until it's finalized in early September. So who’s in? And who’s in trouble?
On the roster: Punter Tress Way, kicker Dustin Hopkins, long snapper Nick Sundberg; returners Jamison Crowder, Rashad Ross, Chris Thompson, Will Blackmon, Dashaun Phillips and Jarvis Turner.
Likely to make the cut: Way, Hopkins, Sundberg, Crowder and Ross.
This one is pretty straightforward because, unless the team signs some competition for the first three, it’ll be Way punting, Hopkins kicking and Sundberg snapping—again. Which, to me, isn’t a problem at all.
Way, the special teams captain, has a big leg and is now focused on fine-tuning his game. Analytics website ProFootballFocus.com rated the 26-year-old as the NFL’s eighth best punter in 2015 based on criteria such as distance, hang time, return yards, punts placed inside the 20, etc.
“It’s safe to say that he’s an improving player,” special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica said of Way recently. “We’re encouraged with what Tress is doing. The good thing about him is he’s a hard worker, he’s diligent in his craft and he wants to get better.”
As for Hopkins, PFF rated the 25-year-old as the 10th most effective kicker in the game last season. Which sounds about right to me. He’s also got a big leg (52 touchbacks, the sixth most) and he’s accurate, too. Hopkins connected on 89.3 percent of his field goal attempts (25 of 28, the ninth best mark) and 97.5 of his PATs (also ninth best). And considering last season was his first as a full-timer, he should continue to improve.
Sundberg, meantime, is as solid as snappers come. The 28-year-old is also quietly moving up the Redskins’ longest tenured list as he enters his seventh season in Washington (only DeAngelo Hall and Kedric Golston have been here longer).
The returner positions seem somewhat less certain. Crowder had a record-breaking season as a rookie slot receiver but saw his share of struggles as a punt returner, averaging just 5.3 yards per, last among qualified returners. Was it his inexperience? The blocking in front of him? A combination of the two? That’s unclear. But we know this much: based on OTAs, it looks like Kotwica is going to give him another shot. Ditto for Ross, who ranked 11th in kickoff return average (24.4 yards per), including a 101-yard touchdown.
Battling for a role: Thompson, Blackmon, Phillips and Turner.
Way, Hopkins and Sundberg are locks barring something unforeseen, such as an injury or a case of the yips.
It is, however, possible that a competition will emerge later this summer at the returner spots. During OTAs and minicamp, we also saw Will Blackmon, Phillips and Turner field some punts and/or kicks. The intriguing name here to me is Blackmon, the 31-year-old jack-of-all-trades defensive back who is moving from corner to safety. He has extensive NFL experience returning both punts and kicks, but hasn’t done either in a meaningful capacity in years.
I suspect Crowder and Ross will be the guys in Week 1, but things could change when/if Thompson enters the fray from offseason shoulder surgery or someone else surprises in training camp.