With a new general manager in charge, new faces throughout the lineup as well as new assistant coaches bringing new ideas to the table, the Redskins are a team in transition. Between now and the start of training camp, CSNWashington.com reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will examine the top questions facing Jay Gruden and Co. as they prepare for the season.
Who will return punts and kickoffs?
Among the areas the Redskins must improve in 2015 is the return game. Last season, No. 3 wide receiver Andre Roberts returned both punts and kickoffs and posted some rather pedestrian numbers, ranking 19th in the league in both categories. Sure, a bit of that can be blamed on the blocking in front of him as the special teams units adapted to Ben Kotwica’s schemes. But some of it was Roberts, who didn’t often display the cut-on-a-dime agility or shot-out-of-a-cannon speed that the league’s premier returners possess. As a result, there will be competition for both roles in Richmond.
El-Bashir: Based on OTAs and minicamp, Kotwica plans to evaluate a number of returners in training camp and the preseason. The candidates are Roberts, Jamison Crowder, Chris Thompson, Rashad Ross and Trey Williams. It’s too early to say anyone has a clear advantage, but I’d be surprised if Crowder didn’t end up as the punt returner Week 1. The fourth round rookie seems to have everything necessary to excel at taking back punts—he surveys the field well, has quick feet and, once in the open field, can turn on the afterburners. At Duke, Crowder scored a combined four touchdowns in 2013 and ‘14. What remains to be seen, though, is how levelheaded he’ll be in the NFL, where everything happens exponentially faster than in college. If Crowder proves in the preseason that he’s also a solid decision maker, I suspect he’ll end up with the job. As for the kickoff return role, that seems a bit murkier. Crowder was the Blue Devils’ primary kickoff returner as a freshman but was used sparingly in that role his last three seasons. Roberts remains in the mix, but he figures to be challenged by Crowder, Thompson and the others. I’m actually eager to see what Williams, the undrafted rookie out of Texas A&M, can do. But if I had to guess right now, I’d say it’s Roberts’ job to lose.
Tandler: Let’s start with the kickoff returner. While I agree that Tarik that it’s probably Roberts’ job, I think it would be a disappointment if he was the ended up with the kickoff return duties this year. They should learn from history. The Cardinals gave him that job as a rookie in 2010 and he averaged a yawn-inspiring 23.3 years per return. The next year, they found someone else to do it. The Redskins should do the same. Perhaps that’s Crowder or Thompson, maybe even Trey Williams if he can make the roster. I agree that Crowder is likely to be the punt returner. Gruden didn’t make a declaration to that effect but it seems pretty clear that he was drafted with that in mind. Scot McCloughan prefers bigger wide receivers and it seems unlikely that the 5-8 Crowder was brought in with that single role in mind. What should be noted when discussing returns, however, is the fact that if the blocking doesn’t improve it won’t matter who is returning the kicks. It’s easy to look at Roberts’ numbers from last year and say that they need to improve but it’s not like a review of the all-22 shows that he missed any gaping holes that Roberts should have turned into big gains.
Previously on Redskins preseason Q&A: