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Redskins starters tune up in Chicago, backups fight for jobs

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Redskins starters tune up in Chicago, backups fight for jobs

What: Redskins vs. Bears
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet (exclusive HD broadcast), NBC 4After a full offseason, more than three weeks of training camp and one exhibition game, Coach Mike Shanahan already knows which players will take the field first for the Redskins on Sept. 9 in New Orleans.But that doesnt mean his job is done. In fact, its about to get tougher as he chooses the second and third stringers wholl comprise the special teams units and give the roster the depth it needs to survive the grueling regular season.We know who our starters are, Shanahan said Thursday, asked how his approach changes from week-to-week in the preseason. But theres a lot of competition in other positions where it could swing either way. Youre trying to find the top 53 and your practice squad with an additional eight.The battle for backup roles got off to an intriguing beginning in Buffalo.Rookies Richard Crawford and Alfred Morris, among others, impressed. Veteran Brandon Banks, meantime, surely seeks a second chance.Tonight, the competition intensifies.Here are four positions the crew at www.csnwashington.com will be scrutinizing in the Windy City:1) Few battles are as tight as the one at wide receiver. Pierre Garon, Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss and Josh Morgan will be Robert Griffin IIIs top targets, likely in that order.After that, its a free-for-all between Anthony Armstrong, Banks, Dezmon Briscoe, Aldrick Robinson and Terrence Austin.
In all likelihood, only two spots remain.Armstrong did not suit up in Buffalo because of a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, so he needs to make up for lost time.Banks, on the other hand, needs the coaching staff to forget about his disappointing performance in Buffalo, where he was targeted nine times but only hauled in two passes for seven yards. To be fair, Banks slipped at least once and Rex Grossman wasnt exactly on-target. But the pint-size playmaker must be better against the Bears on offense and as a returner, where suddenly finds himself under pressure from Crawford.As for Briscoe, since he doesnt contribute on special teams, he must earn a roster spot based on the merit of his pass-catching abilities. He was not targeted against Bills, but the 6-2, 210 pounder is expected to have a bigger role in Chicago.2) Madieu Williams and Brandon Meriweather appear to be the favorites to claim the starting jobs at free and strong safety, respectively. Hard-hitting Tanard Jackson, based on practice reps, also appears to be in the teams plans to help buttress a position that was seen as one of the Redskins biggest weakness last season.That leaves DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and rookie Jordan Bernstine battling for one, maybe two spots. Against the Bills, both Gomes and Bernstine recorded four tackles, which was tied for third most on the team behind linebackers Bryan Kehl (6) and Chris Wilson (5). Bernstine also made a tackle on special teams.3) After his breakout performance in Buffalo, Shanahan figures to want another look at Morris.Shanahan already knows what he has in Evan Royster, and with both Tim Hightower (knee) and Roy Helu Jr. (Achilles tendinitis) are sidelined, it wouldnt be surprising to see Morris line up with the first team.A powerful, one-cut runner, Morris rushed for a game-high 54 yards on 15 carries against the Bills second and third stringers. But can he catch a pass? Can he pass block? If he plays with the first team, how will he fare against seven-time pro bowler Julius Peppers and a Bears defense thats a step up in class from Buffalos?4) Griffin isnt fighting for a job, obviously. But more will be expected from him in his second professional start. The touted rookie is expected to play 30-35 snaps, up from the 14 he took in Buffalo, where he impressed with his poise and ability to read the Bills defense and audible changes at the line of scrimmage.Griffin did not attempt any of the designed runs Shanahan has put into the playbook to accentuate his speed and elusiveness against the Bills. Griffin, who joked this week that he hasnt been tackled since the Alamo Bowl in December, could benefit from executing those plays at full speed, against opposing defenses. But will Shanahan expose his prized rookie to potential injury?Will Griffin attempt spread the ball around more effectively? Three of his four completions last week were to Garon.Will Griffin receive adequate enough protection from the injury-riddled offensive line to accomplish much? Trent Williams (foot) and Maurice Hurt (knee) are probable, according to Shanahan, while Chris Chester (ankle) is questionable.Answers to those questions, and more, will begin emerging a few hours from now at Soldier Field.

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, February 18, 24 days before NFL free agency starts.

Tandler’s Take

The topic for today’s post comes from Twitter:

When I asked for topics for this post, the subject of the running game came up with several of them. And since John brought up the draft, let’s look at that as a potential solution.

Let’s first establish that the Redskins’ running game was not good enough last year. I don’t need to spend a bunch of time on this but here are some numbers. They were 28th in rushing yards and 29th in yards per carry. If you like to weigh more complete metrics, they were 28th in rushing DVOA. If you want to look at a key situation, they were last in the league in yards per first-down rushing attempt. Last year a team gained 100 yards rushing or more 274 times. The Redskins got there five times.

I’m going to leave it at that here since, again, if you’re reading this you probably watched a lot of their games and you don’t need to be persuaded that the running game was largely unproductive. Yes, there were injuries that had the offensive linemen playing snaps just days after being signed and the broken leg suffered by Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley’s various ailments. But the Redskins haven’t ranked higher than 19th in rushing yards since Jay Gruden became the head coach. Rushing game struggles are an ongoing issue.

I am going to work on the premise that those who advocate having the Redskins improve their running game via the draft are talking about drafting a running back in the first or second round. That may be overgeneralizing but that gives me a good-sized chunk of data to work with and still be able to analyze it in the 1000 words or so I am allotted here.

I’m also going to call a 1,000-yard season the minimum that would be expected out of a back drafted in the first two rounds. There are other ways a back can contribute, of course, and we can deal with them separately.

From 2010-2017, there were 45 thousand-yard rushing seasons by players who entered the league during those years (all data via the indispensable Pro Football Reference unless noted). Twelve of them were accomplished by players drafted in the first round. Six came from second-round picks, six from third-rounders, four from the fourth, three from the fifth, four from the sixth and none from the seventh. Oh, and there were 10 thousand-yard seasons that came from undrafted players.

It should be noted that four of those seasons from undrafted players came from the Texans’ Arian Foster. And two each came from LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So those 10 thousand-yard seasons should not be seen as an indication that there is a treasure trove of running back talent going undrafted every year.

Back to the first and second rounders, the combined 16 thousand-yard seasons doesn’t mean much in isolation. How many backs were drafted in the first two rounds in that time? How many opportunities have they had to post big seasons?

In the past eight drafts, 34 running backs were drafted in the first and second round. That group has had 170 opportunities to post a 1,000-yard season. What I mean by opportunities is the number of seasons that have elapsed since the player was drafted. The six backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2010 have each had eight chances to gain 1,000 yards in a season so they have combined for 48 opportunities (6*8). There were five backs drafted in the first and second seven seasons ago, so there have combined for 35 opportunities, and so on. Through the eight years that adds up to 170 seasons.

The combined 16 thousand-yard seasons in 170 opportunities comes to a success rate of 9.4 percent when it comes to reaching the bar that most fans would set as the minimum.

A couple of things need to be pointed out here. There are some backs like Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen, and Christian McCaffrey who do not have any big rushing seasons on their resumes but have been valuable catching passes out of the backfield. And some like Dalvin Cook, who was injured after a promising start last year, and McCaffrey seemed destined to have 1,000-yard seasons in their futures. So all of the backs who have not gained 1,000 yards in a season are not necessarily draft busts or failures.

But here are first-round running back busts, just like there are busts at every position. There were 12 running back picked in the first round of the past eight drafts. Javid Best, David Wilson, and Trent Richardson clearly were disappointments (the former two struggled with injuries). Doug Martin, Ryan Mathews, and C.J. Spiller have had some success but perhaps not enough to justify being first-round picks. It took Mark Ingram a while, but he got rolling in his sixth NFL season. I want to see more out of McCaffrey before judging him and Melvin Gordon needs to continue his upward trajectory. It’s safe to say that even with small sample sizes of data in the books on Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette they were home runs. So was Todd Gurley.

So out of 12 first-round backs in the last eight years, you have three clear busts, three moderate disappointments, four top-level performers (including Ingram) and two TBD.

In any case, it’s clear that just drafting a back early is not a panacea for a struggling running game. Blocking (from both the line and the receivers and other backs), play calling, scheme, and some intangible factors like attitude (as Brian Mitchell will tell you) all play into the success and failure of moving the ball on the ground.

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.

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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

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