The preseason is officially in the books. The Washington Redskins by 9 p.m. Friday will have their roster whittled down to 53 players, and over the weekend will add eight practice squad members.
Monday they will begin preparation for the Sept. 9 regular season opener.
Here are five thoughts related to forming that 53-man roster based on what we saw last night, and the preseason as a whole.
1.) The case for and against Brandon Banks: It’s impossible to deny that his speed is a rare gift. Other guys might be as fast — teammates say Anthony Armstrong is actually a titch faster – but, to go along with his speed, Banks has great cutting ability that other’s don’t. He’s certainly done enough this preseason to warrant a roster spot. Ninety-one-yard punt return, 47-yard reception, 43-yard run. . . . After the Buffalo game, any time Banks was given a chance to make a play, he capitalized. But … if the Redskins have to make decisions off speed, they have options. Aldrick Robinson finally got a chance to return kicks and averaged 33.5 yards per runback. Niles Paul last week took one back 42 yards. From a receiver standpoint, Robinson, Armstrong, Terrence Austin and Dezmon Briscoe can all do more because of their size advantage over Banks. On go-routes, Banks is good . . . if he can get off the line after being jammed by bigger defensive backs. Last night’s 47-yard bomb came after Banks raced past the cornerback covering him. There was no press coverage, just a foot race down the field. On shorter routes, when Banks has to use his body, he is sub par. It’s hard to fend off a guy four inches and 30 pounds heavier than you as you try to go after the ball on a slant route. Austin and Robinson won’t get the nods over Santana Moss in the slot, but they are better here than Banks. So can the Redskins afford to keep Banks around? . . . Today (and I go back and forth daily) I’m saying yes. Now that you definitely aren’t keeping four tight ends, maybe you can keep six, seven wide receivers. Or, say you go with the five starting offensive linemen — Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, Will Montgomery, Chris Chester and Tyler Polumbus — and Josh LeRibeus as a backup guard/center, Maurice Hurt as a backup guard/tackle, and Jordan Black as a swing tackle. That’s eight guys because you can get Adam Gettis and Tom Compton on the practice squad. That gives you room for another receiver/return man: Banks.
2.) Offensive line numbers: Okay, so the last item just went into the collection of linemen that the Redskins could go with. Here’s why: Gettis, despite starting two preseason games in place of Chester, still doesn’t appear to be there yet. He plays high at times, and still is adjusting to the speed and strength of the NFL defensive lineman. The fifth-round pick out of Iowa could probably make it onto the practice squad to groom, and then be a contributor down the road. If there’s an injury, Washington can promote him to the 53 just like they did Hurt last year. When it comes to tackle, Black appears to be the safest bet. The veteran is more solid than Willie Smith and Compton at this point. Smith has physical tools, but is inconstant, and that up-and-down nature has made coaches wonder if he has the mental makeup to be relied upon. Smith did play better the last two weeks, but I’m not sure it’s enough to convince coaches to take him over Black. Compton simply isn’t yet ready. A seventh-rounder out of North Dakota, he has a significant jump to make from college to NFL. He can be stashed on the practice squad to develop for a year or two and then become a serviceable backup.
3.) Running back race: The Redskins will likely take all four backs – Alfred Morris, Evan Royster, Tim Hightower and Roy Helu Jr. – into the season. All four have shown they can contribute nicely, but the three veterans haven’t yet proven themselves to be durable at this point. Hightower is still working his way back, Royster had the knee injury and then took a stinger to his neck, and who knows how long Helu’s Achilles’ tendons will hold up? Who starts? Hard to say. Morris did well, but it was against Indianapolis’ evolving 3-4 defense, not a stout front like Chicago’s. Hightower probably can’t right now. It’s likely going to be handled by committee. But these four, plus fullback Darrel Young should round out the backfield.
4.) Other wideouts: Armstrong did what he needed to do to remain on the team, in my opinion. He showed last night that he could beat the press coverage, and he remains a contributor on special teams. Briscoe wasn’t sure of his chances and expressed disappointment that he didn’t get a chance to show he could play on special teams. It’s still hard to cut a guy with his size (6-2, 210) and play-making ability (he led Tampa Bay with six touchdown catches as a rookie). With Leonard Hankerson (hip) and Josh Morgan (leg) both having suffered serious injuries despite their youth, maybe Briscoe’s a good insurance policy. Austin can do a bit of it all – play in the slot, return kicks and punts, serve as a gunner on kickoff and punt teams. And Robinson showed he has big-play ability, and also can return kicks. Robinson has practice squad eligibility left, but after his big preseason game against Chicago, he likely is on teams’ radars.
5.) Billy Cundiff’s debut: The move to replace Graham Gano with Cundiff will take some time to tell how wise a decision it was. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Gano winds up as another David Akers, who struggled early in his career as a Redskin, got cut and then morphed into as clutch a kicker as there is. Cundiff’s stats on field goals don’t suggest that he’s better than Gano. He has significantly more touchbacks, but Gano was often instructed to hang the ball in the air, or angle the ball into the corner of the field so teams would have to return the ball, and then get stopped short of the 20 by Washington’s strong coverage unit. Cundiff missed a 46-yard field goal last night, but it’s not entirely surprising considering that he and Sav Rocca and Nick Sundberg had only a day to practice together. But we’ll see in a few weeks if the miss was a sign of things to come, or if Redskins brass did indeed make the right call.
Odds and ends: Look for rookie Richard Crawford to make the team after he recorded his second interception of the preseason and continued to play well. Crawford played sick last week and felt like he wasn’t as effective. But he has still done enough to earn a spot, and boasts great versatility both at the cornerback and punt return position. The trade of Kevin Barnes further boosted Crawford’s chances. . . . Inside linebacker Bryan Kehl made it harder on coaches with his interception and continued strong play Wednesday night. The fifth-year veteran offers versatility as an inside and outside linebacker and special teams contributor. Could the Redskins carry nine linebackers (Fletcher, Riley, Orakpo, Kerrigan as starters along with Jackson, Wilson, Alexander, Robinson and Kehl)? … Safety will be interesting where Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson are safe, but the unit includes Reed Doughty (who coaches see as a reliable backup and special teamer) and DeJon Gomes, as well as rookie Jordan Bernstine, who just had an interception. Do you keep Gomes and put Bernstine on the practice squad? Keep the veteran Doughty over second-year Gomes, and keep Bernstine? …The Kirk Cousins era now will go into hibernation. Rex Grossman is the No. 2, so barring injuries to both Robert Griffin III and Grossman, we won’t see Cousins, who did well this summer, until next preseason.