After a seven-month hiatus, the Redskins will return to the football field against the Atlanta Falcons. Though Washington won the division for the first time since 2012 last year, there are multiple questions regarding their roster going into 2016. Many doubt whether the team can make the playoffs again, as they were the only playoff team without a win against a team with a winning record. In Washington’s defense, the opponents they faced with a winning record (Jets, Patriots, Panthers) had a combined 22-1 combined record at that point in their respective seasons.
Ahead of their first preseason game, I have compiled a list of the most important players, and position battles to watch for tonight.
Su’a Cravens’ Positional Fit: Scot Mccloughan drafted Su’a Cravens, aLB/S hybrid, with the Skins’ second round pick this Spring. Cravens was one of the more intriguing players in Washington’s draft class due to his athletic ability and “tweener”. Scouts argued about where Cravens would fit into an NFL defense, due to him playing both OLB and safety in college. Coach Jay Gruden counters those criticisms by calling Cravens a versatile playmaker, who can help in various aspects of his defense.
Cravens excelled in zone coverage at USC and has soft hands for a defensive player. He plays aggressive which will lead him to make plays as a rookie, but also might cause him to give up significant yardage as a rookie.
Gruden has said that he expects to play Cravens at a specific position for the beginning of his career, and tonight will be a great preview of how he’ll be used this year.
Depth at OLB: Earlier in the offseason, Washington looked like it had one of the best OLB groups in the NFL. With veterans Ryan Kerrigan, (23 sacks over the past two seasons) and Junior Galette (22 sacks in his last two seasons) the position seemed set for 2016. Then everything changed a day before training camp when Galette tore his Achilles. Now with second-year player Preston Smith starting in place of Galette, the depth at OLB seems very thin.
Aside from Trent Murphy, no other backups have started a game in their careers. Houston Bates, who is listed as the third-string Sam linebacker, was a practice squad member for the Redskins last year, and only had four tackles in ten games. In his limited playing time, Bates recorded a 53.5 PFF grade which is in line with a “below replacement player” level.
Willie Jefferson is behind Ryan Kerrigan on the depth chart and has not played in a game since 2013 with San Diego.
As a best case scenario, Trent Murphy will be able to back up Smith even though Gruden referred to him as a defensive end until a week ago. Murphy has yet to live up to his early second round status but still has shown flashes of potential over his first two years.
Will Murphy, Bates, and Jefferson step up in place of the injured Galette? That question could be answered tonight.
Washington’s Running Backs: After four productive years in DC, Alfred Morris left the team and signed on with the Dallas Cowboys. This transaction put the Redskins in a tough position, should they rely on Matt Jones, who struggled with fumbles on multiple occasions? Or should they look to the draft or free agency as a solution? Scot Mccloughan used a 7th round pick on Georgia alum Keith Marshall, who had success in college, but also suffered from multiple injuries. Marshall started the season as roster bubble player but has started to receive a decent amount of snaps with the first-team offense. Marshall is extremely talented, and if he can get some snaps tonight, he’ll be able to prove his worth as a starting NFL back.
On the other hand, Matt Jones played well in a few games last year. Though he averaged a putrid 3.4 YPC, he caught multiple screen passes for touchdowns in 2015. Many RBs struggled in their rookie season, and then improve in their second year. Even Le’Veon Bell had a 3.5 YPC his rookie year.
Can Jones make the jump? Will Keith Marshall carve out a starting role? Let’s find out tonight.