At long last, training camp is finally here. Redskins’ players and coaches will report to Richmond on Wednesday and then hit the fields at the Bon Secours training facility on Thursday morning. Here’s your guide to the top storylines on defense. Go here to see our preview of the offensive side of the ball.
The big story: Following a 4-12 campaign in which the Redskins’ defense ranked 20th in yards allowed, 29th in points permitted and dead last in passing touchdowns surrendered, head coach Jay Gruden and GM Scot McCloughan overhauled the unit’s coaching staff and personnel.
Indeed, the biggest offseason changes at Redskins Park transpired on the defensive side of the ball, where there’s a new coordinator (Joe Barry), a new secondary coach (Perry Fewell) and a new defensive line coach (Robb Akey). The majority of the team’s offseason acquisitions are also defenders, a pricey group led by cornerback Chris Culliver, defensive end Stephen Paea, nose tackle Terrance Knighton and free safety Dashon Goldson. Those four players rank among the Redskins’ eight highest cap hits on defense.
All told, Barry’s retooled unit could feature as many as five (and possible six) new starters.
As for Barry’s more aggressive one-gap scheme, which has been praised by veterans such as Jason Hatcher and Ricky Jean Francois, we’ll get our first extended look at those plans in a couple of days. But we can already say this with certainty: Barry has a enormous challenge before him as he attempts to pull it all together ahead of the Sept. 13 opener against Miami.
The position battle(s) to watch: Trent Murphy vs. Preston Smith for the starting right outside linebacker job, and Jeron Johnson and Duke Ihenacho for the starting strong safety spot.
Let’s start with Murphy vs. Smith. Murphy, obviously, has the edge in experience, having started eight games as a rookie last season. The Stanford product also spent the offseason training with Olympic sprint coaches to help improve his first step and has bulked up to 267 pounds to bolster his strength. Near the end of the offseason program, Gruden called Murphy the team’s most improved player. Smith, on the other hand, is McCloughan’s guy, having been drafted 38th overall by the new GM. Smith also showed steady progress throughout the offseason. Murphy figures to enter camp with a slight advantage, but Smith has the physical tools to close that gap in a hurry.
The battle at strong safety is too close to call at the moment. Ihenacho has more experience, having started for the AFC champion Broncos in 2013. Johnson, however, has a history with McCloughan dating back to their time together in Seattle. Both players come from winning programs and each of them worked with the first unit during the offseason. Though, based on the five practices that were open to media, it appeared that Ihenacho received more time with the starters.
The players on the bubble: In February, the Redskins and DeAngelo Hall agreed to remove a $1 million guarantee from 31-year-old’s contract. But I don’t really consider Hall to be on the bubble. As long as he proves, as expected, that he’s fully recovered from his twice torn Achilles’ tendon, I suspect he’ll not only make the 53-man roster but possibly reclaim his starting job, as well.
Defensive lineman Kedric Golston is 32 and the Redskins’ longest tenured player. But he's also savvy, versatile, tough and lines up on special teams. He should be safe but with five, and perhaps six, D-lineman ahead of him on the depth chart, the situation bears watching.
Two more players that find themselves in a tenuous position are outside linebacker Jackson Jeffcoat and safety Phillip Thomas. Jeffcoat notched a sack and an interception in limited playing time last season, but he’s behind Ryan Kerrigan, Murphy, Smith and possibly Trevardo Williams. Last season, the Redskins only kept four OLBs. As for Thomas, he’s behind Goldson, Ihenacho, Johnson and possibly Trenton Robinson and rookie Kyshoen Jarrett, too. Four or five safeties will make the cut.
The injury concerns: Although Hall says he feels great, he also expects to be eased back into team drills. So don’t be surprised if he’s a limited participant in the opening days of camp. Ditto for Ryan Kerrigan, who sat out the offseason while rehabbing from a knee scope. I’m told he’s 100-percent, but it remains to be seen if he participates in 11-on-11 drills right away.
The bottom line: On paper, the defense seems to be improved. The unit has energetic coaches who are eager to teach and motivate. The talent level, too, appears to be higher, particularly on the backend. But also know this: even if everything goes according to plan, it's probably going to take some time.