With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
Head Coach Joe Gibbs went into the 2005 season with high hopes for his teams. Of course, people around the NFL didn’t really believe in him or his system. In fact, outside of the nation’s capital and maybe parts of Virginia, the Redskins weren’t really expected to do much. But they surprised most experts with their solid season and playoff appearance. But they did not remain complacent in this offseason as Owner Daniel Snyder did his absolute best impression of George Steinbrenner and went looking for players to throw money at. He reeled in some talented players in exchange for that cash, but it remains to see just exactly how they will impact the Redskins as they compete in the incredibly tough NFC East.
Probably one of Snyder’s biggest splurges was obtaining Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders from the Kansas City Chiefs. Saunders was the architect of the high-powered K.C. offense, helping them develop one of the most dangerous running attacks in the NFL while still displaying a top flight passing game. Saunders is a 24 year NFL veteran who had been with the Chiefs for 15 of those seasons. Saunders was named USA Today’s 2005 Offensive Coach of the Year and is considered one of the strongest offensive minds in all of football. What Saunders brings to the Redskins is an understanding of the types of defenses in the NFL and an innate ability to find and exploit weaknesses. Saunders will be able to get production from a running attack which features one of the best running backs in the NFL and a decent receiving unit. He’ll work with those guys as well as a former Pro Bowl quarterback in making the Redskins offense more potent that it has been in recent memory.
QB: Mark Brunell was supposedly done. Everyone thought that he wasn’t going to contribute much for the Redskins after they acquired him in 2004. After a very lackluster season, he was expected to be supplanted by Patrick Ramsey for the quarterback job. Well, all Brunell did was beat Ramsey out for the job and passed for 3,050 yards last season. He also displayed great efficiency, throwing for 23 scores while only being intercepted 10 times. Brunell had a resurgence in 2005, showing off his accurate arm while an ability to lead an offense. Some will question his ability to keep it going and whether or not this was a one year development, but the Redskins are poised to let him find out. Behind him, second-year QB Jason Campbell is having an excellent preseason, helping critics in Washington and all around the NFL believe that he could be ready to take over for the Redskins eventually as the starting quarterback. Campbell is looking ten times more comfortable in the pocket and is making decisive plays when he is in the game.
RB/FB: Clinton Portis is one of the best in the NFL, but his status is now in question because of the shoulder injury he suffered in the preseason opener. He is already slated to miss the rest of the preseason and could be in serious jeopardy to miss the beginning of the regular season. Portis, when healthy, provides the Redskins with a speedy running back who can get the edge faster than most NFL linebackers and make you miss with incredibly agile moves. He ran for a franchise-record 1,516 yards last season and took considerable pressure off Mark Brunell. Ladell Betts and newly acquired T.J. Duckett will provide the Redskins with runners until the time that Portis is ready to return. The award for one of the best football names goes to FB Rock Cartwright, who will be used as a blocker and is a vital member of the special teams unit.
WR/TE: Their top receiver in 2005 was also one of the best in the NFL last season. Santana Moss displayed an ability to get open and make plays, showing that his size was less of a detriment than originally thought by NFL scouts and front office personnel. Moss was able in 2005 to average 17.7 yards a reception, something that shows his big play ability and the difficulty opposing defenses have in stopping him. 9 touchdowns give you an idea of how dangerous Moss can be to you on any given play. Moss uses his speed and quickness to make bigger corners miss him and lose him down the field. Opposite Moss now will be a platoon of two offseason acquisitions that should help him with their versatility. Antwaan Randle-El from Pittsburgh and Brandon Lloyd from San Francisco should give Moss more openings. Both those receivers are very athletic and able to give defenses much of the same problems that Moss will give you. Randle-El can give you different looks, as a passer and a runner as well as contributing on special teams as a returner. Lloyd is a highlight reel waiting to happen, but the knocks on him are his toughness and ability to make every catch. All in all, they should contribute nicely to the Redskin offense. They also have one of the most underrated TEs in the NFL in Chris Cooley. He had 71 receptions and 7 touchdowns in maximizing his role as the team’s top tight end/H-back. With former Patriot Christian Fauria as the second TE, they could be seen using more two-TE sets in 2006.
OL: Saunders will want to work with the unit in their run-blocking because his system is predicated on the success they will have running the football. They are already a solid run-blocking line, but Saunders different formations and blocking assignments should make them even better. Casey Rabach came over last season from Baltimore and was a solid member of the Redskins unit. Rabach gives the Redskins a good athlete at the center position who can get out and run-block and make vital calls on the line. To his left sit tackle Chris Samuels and guard Derrick Dockery. Samuels is considered to be one of the elite tackles in the NFL. His size is an excellent cover to his incredible agility and ability to handle and engulf most NFL defensive ends. Dockery is showing continued improvement, mostly by shedding some excess weight and showing both better endurance and more agility. He is able to get on the pull quicker and should benefit Saunders’ running game with that newfound ability. To Rabach’s right is Jon Jansen at tackle and Randy Thomas inside. Jansen combines with Samuels to be one of the best tackle duos in the NFL and has a unique job in caring for Brunell’s blindside since he is a left-handed passer. Jansen is the senior member of the line and has established himself as a leader for the offensive unit as a whole on and off the field. Randy Thomas is both quick and strong and has been incredibly consistent in his 7 NFL seasons. This line is a solid unit which should see even more improvement under Al Saunders.
Overall Grade: B+
The defense is the responsibility of Assistant Head Coach Gregg Williams. He was entrusted with the task of developing a feared and intimidating defense for the Redskins in order for them to compete with and dominate the competition. I guess that’s a big ‘mission accomplished’ for Williams. Since he signed on to lead the defense under Joe Gibbs, the Redskins have responded with one of the most formidable defenses in the NFL with their attacking style and relentless blitzes. His defense thrives on toughness and persistence, with no real individual superstar but a cohesive unit that worked together to be one of the league’s best.
DL: We start on the outside with the two defensive ends, Phillip Daniels and free-agent Andre Carter from San Francisco. Daniels is a veteran of 10 seasons who has continued to give them a veteran presence on the defensive line without sacrificing production. He had 72 tackles and also added a team-leading 8 sacks to the equation. Daniels has the ability to play either side as an end or a DT as well. Carter, meanwhile, will have to once again prove that he can be an effective defensive end in the NFL. He played the outside linebacker spot for the 49ers last season in their 3-4 defense, but will return to his natural end position in Washington. However, Carter will have to show that his speed isn’t all he’s got and that he can handle being outweighed by the larger NFL tackles. Joe Salave’a and Cornelius Griffin will man the inside of the line. Salave’a played through a foot injury last season while still displaying his ability off the ball and strength to attack the interior of the line. He’s an energy player who always keeps moving in the attack. Griffin is a two-way tackle, playing the run and the pass equally well.
LB: The loss of LaVar Arrington means more to their recognition around the NFL more than anything else. They have three solid NFL-caliber linebackers who can make the necessary plays and are solid in all aspects of the game. In the middle is Lemar Marshall, a very good athlete who moved into the middle linebacker spot last season and wasn’t negatively affected by the move at all. Led the team in tackles and is a playmaker with the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline. Outside of him are Marcus Washington on the strongside and Marcus Holdman on the weakside. Washington is another much like Marshall, a quiet playmaker who always seems to contribute wherever you need him to. A solid pass defender who excels at playing the run, Washington should see some solid improvement again in the 2006 season after contributing in all aspects, including 7-5 sacks, an interception, and 4 forced fumbles. The weakside is protected by Holdman, who brings big experience and veteran presence to the entire defense. His biggest value is his knowledge of the system.
DB: Shawn Springs is their top corner, but he’s recently had surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle. His numbers don’t say a lot, but that’s more due to the fact that he’s a top corner who usually is avoided when the weakness of the opposite side is exposed. Springs’ injury leaves Carlos Rogers as the top corner. Rogers, who is slated to start opposite Springs, has yet to display the consistency or ability that is expected for a top corner. None of their other corners, Kenny Wright and newly acquired Mike Rumph, have displayed consistency in the NFL either and this could be a bit of a problem spot. Sean Taylor is one of hot young guns in the NFL at safety and although he’s had his problems with legal issues and on the field discipline, is a talented safety who take the necessary chances in order to make the right play. On his other side is another free-agent pickup, Adam Archuleta from the Rams. Archuleta is a hard-hitting safety who has old-school tendencies. He’s a good athlete who will often play through injuries and is really smart in reading offenses as well.
Overall Grade: B-
K: John Hall is back after suffering an injury-plagued 2005 season in which he made 12 of 14 FG attempts and all 27 of his PATs before succumbing to injury. He Is a solid veteran kicker who has good accuracy and can also contribute on kickoffs, making him a valuable kicker to any system. He solidifies the position for the Redskins.
P: Punter Derrick Frost expected to have some competition this season, but instead has handled it well and appears to once again be in the Redskins plans at kicker. He has improved on his hang time and his distances, but still needs to work on his situational punting, especially his midfield punts.
Overall Grade: B+
Joe Gibbs proved detractors wrong last season in his second season back with the Redskins, taking them to the playoffs. Gibbs will have to prove that he’s continuing to get better in 2006 because the playoffs are not a certainty in the rugged NFC East. In order to compete they will need more consistent contributions from the offense. They plan to get some with the addition of Al Saunders as an Associate Head Coach in charge of the Redskins’ offense. He brings one of the best offensive minds in the NFL to the Redskins and looks to improve an explosive offense that lacked consistency. Gregg Williams is one of the best defensive minds to match Saunders for the defense. Williams has been preaching a successful aggressive attack which features blitzes from all angles and tough man coverage.
Overall Grade: A
Position Battles to Watch
RB: Another situation in which two backs will battle for the position until the starter returns from injury. The Redskins will see if either Ladell Betts of T.J. Duckett can be a good replacement while Clinton Portis is on the shelf. Duckett is newly acquired from Atlanta and is a powerful north-south runner, but Betts is more familiar with the system and could be ahead on the depth chart because of it.
CB: Who will step up because of injury? Shawn Springs isn’t 100% healthy and Carlos Rogers, the 2005 first-round draft pick, doesn’t look ready to handle the pressures of being a consistent corner in the NFL. Guys like Kenny Wright, Ade Jimoh, Mike Rumph, and Dimitri Patterson all will compete. Whoever is able to step up is the winner.
Player to Watch
Mike Rumph, DB: Rumph, who played for the 49ers last season and has been injury prone the past couple of seasons, looks for a fresh start in Washington. He had a solid 2003 season before losing the last two because of injury. With a new system and a defensive coordinator who attacks the quarterback, Rumph may benefit as a strong corner that can stay on his man for a few seconds. He will not be left to cover for long periods of time because of the pressure the line and linebackers can put on opposing quarterbacks.
Offensive MVP: Santana Moss
Defensive MVP: Lemar Marshall