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Redskins training camp preview: Defense

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Redskins training camp preview: Defense

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.

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, June 24, 32 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The heat is on Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden knows that his Redskins need to win in 2018.

“This isn’t a two- or three-year process,” he said last week. “This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away.” 

Jay Gruden gave this answer to a question about Alex Smith, but his words should resonate with the whole team. He’s right. This is no longer a rebuilding team. It’s time for this team to get it together and make a playoff run. 

That puts the pressure on Gruden. 

This is his fifth year as coach of the Redskins. He is well beyond the point where he can credibly point a finger of blame at his predecessor for any problems that are lingering. Only five players who were around in 2013, Mike Shanahan’s last year in Washington. It’s Gruden’s show now. 

His tenure is now the longest for a Redskins head coach since Norv Turner made it nearly seven years, from 1994 through 13 games into the 2000 season. His 49-59-1 run with the Redskins spanned three owners in Jack Kent Cooke, John Kent Cooke, and Dan Snyder. 

It should be noted that Turner’s third and fourth years at the helm closely resembled Gruden’s past two years. Turner’s team went 9-7 in 1996 and 8-7-1 the next year, narrowly missing the playoffs both years. That looks a lot like Gruden’s 8-7-1 and 7-9 records over the past two years. 

Gruden does not want this year’s team to resemble the 1998 Redskins. Turner’s fifth team started out 0-7 before winning four of their last five to finish 6-10. 

Turner kept his job in part because of the team’s uncertain ownership situation after the elder Cooke passed away in 1997. Gruden will not have a similar set of circumstances to help him out if he needs a lifeline in January. 

Gruden wants his fifth year to turn out more like Turner’s sixth season. That team went 10-6, topped the NFC East standings and won a playoff game. 

To get there, he needs a lot of his decisions to go right. While the trade for Smith was not his call, every indication is that he was on board with it. 

Last year, it was his decision to say no, thanks to Wade Phillips, who wanted to be his defensive coordinator and promote Greg Manusky into the job. The results were mixed as the Redskins were sixth in pass defense DVOA but 29thagainst the run. It was viewed as a marginal improvement on defense but the unit still seeme to be more of a liability than an asset. 

This year, the Redskins re-signed inside linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster and added defensive lineman Daron Payne with their first-round pick after spending their first-round pick on DE Jonathan Allen in 2017. There will be no excuses for Manusky and, by extension, Gruden if the defense does not improve. 

Joe Barry, Manusky’s predecessor who also was hired by Gruden when Phillips was an option, was out after two years of failing to significantly improve the defense. Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Barry did not get an infusion of talent anywhere approaching what Manusky has received in his two seasons. Manusky is getting a second year but he probably won’t get a third if the defense is still considered to be an impediment to the team’s progress. 

And if Manusky has to go, you have to wonder if Gruden will get a chance to hire a third defensive coordinator. 

I’m not sure if there is a certain number of games that the Redskins have to win for Gruden to return in 2019. It feels like he would not survive a 6-10 season or maybe not even another 7-9 finish. On the other end of the spectrum, making the playoffs and winning a game when they get there would certainly punch his ticket for a sixth season. 

Anything in between would leave Gruden in some jeopardy and the call would come down to the vague “moving in the right direction” criteria. 

There are some holes on this team, to be sure. But every team has some and the ones that are well coached figure out how to overcome them. The pressure will be on Gruden to best utilize their strengths and minimize any damage brought about by the weaker points. 

From his statement, it’s apparent that he is well aware of that. 

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

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I put out a tweet correcting the Super Bowl ring count to two.

Timeline  

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 32
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 46
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 60

The Redskins last played a game 175 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 77 days. 

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Roster competition, Brown vs. Pryor

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Roster competition, Brown vs. Pryor

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, June 23, 33 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins  and NBC Sports Washington.

Post-minicamp Redskins 53-man roster projection—Defense—NFL coaches and others like to tell you that competition determines who wins roster spots in the league. And that may be true to an extent. But many roster spots are predetermined by a player’s contract situation and/or draft status. It is unlikely that an undrafted player like Fish Smithson will win a roster spot over Troy Apke even if the former outperforms the latter in every way during training camp. Apke was a fourth-round pick and they aren’t going to give up on him in favor of an undrafted player. It would cost $3.2 million in dead cap to cut Stacy McGee and only $150,000 to move on from Ziggy Hood so McGee will win a “competition” that is even remotely close. (Offensive projection here)

Redskins will 'have it out' for Terrelle Pryor at training camp—While this is something that could add a little spice to the Jets’ visit to Richmond, don’t look for much of anything to happen. Zach Brown might give a little extra shove to Pryor here and there but he’s not going to do anything that will draw blood or even cause a deep bruise. If nothing else, a big hit on Pryor would invite retaliation by the Jets on Josh Doctson or Paul Richardson. And that might lead to more retaliation and you end up with a brawl like the Redskins and Texans had a couple of years ago.

Trent Williams very much of approves of Smith and Guice—Williams is going into his ninth NFL season and he has yet to be on the winning side of a playoff game. He thinks that Alex Smith and Derrius Guice can help change that. 

The curious case of Alex Smith and the NFL Top 100 list—I normally greet this list with a big yawn and this year was no exception. But I do find the omission of Smith, who led the NFL in passer rating and was third in adjusted net yards per attempt, odd. In an update to this post, the NFL released the names of the top 10 players and Smith is not on it. He shouldn’t be, but he should be somewhere on the 100, perhaps in the middle of the pack. The only Redskins player to appear on the list was Trent Williams at No. 57.

The Redskins' best players who are 25 or younger—It’s likely that nine players who are 25 or younger will line up as starters for the Redskins this year. I don’t have a rundown of how that compares to the rest of the league but it’s notable that in the last two years six of them have replaced players who were either approaching age 30 or over it. I’ll engage in some speculation here and say that five of the young players—Daron Payne, Derrius Guice, Preston Smith, Jonathan Allen, and Montae Nicholson—are good enough to potentially make a Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. 

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

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Timeline 

Former Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz was born on this date in 1950. 

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 33
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 47
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 70

The Redskins last played a game 174 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 78 days. 

In case you missed it