Redskins training camp: What we’ve learned, and the questions that remain

August 17, 2013

Rookies Baccari Rambo and David Amerson limber up on the final day of training camp. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Redskins training camp has come and gone. The team will continue the remainder of the preseason and preparations for the regular season from its Ashburn headquarters.

Things are starting to take shape on many fronts, and the Redskins are starting to find the answers to some of the questions they had when camp began. A lot still has to be settled over the next three weeks.

But here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far:

  • Rookie DBs will contribute: David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo have looked promising. In Amerson, the second-round pick out of N.C. State, the Redskins have a long, physical cornerback with very good instincts. Secondary coach Raheem Morris says Amerson has all the tools to be able to match up with elite wide receivers. He obviously will encounter some struggles as his NFL education continues, but Amerson will be a factor in the secondary. Another thing that has become evident after just one preseason game is his ability to contribute in run defense. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the thick of things and tackle. Rambo, meanwhile, also has pleased coaches with his understanding of the defense and his role. He too has good coverage skills and has tracked down passes for interceptions in practices. The Titans didn’t go after Rambo in the preseason opener, and while he knows that his day is coming, the rookie took that as a good sign that at least in his initial outing, he did well in his coverage assignments. Rambo drew attention for missing Chris Johnson in the open field, but Redskins coaches weren’t concerned with that. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and Morris said Johnson would have never gotten to the secondary if players up front hadn’t blown their assignments. Still, Morris said he saw the play as key to Rambo’s development. Rambo agreed. He knows that he has to take better angles and at make a better attempt to get a hand, body or something on a runner in that situation. The rookies will not achieve perfection this year. Who does? But they have the mental and physical tools to help Washington improve.
  • Helu can make a difference: Roy Helu Jr. literally breathed a sigh of relief when asked if he had gotten the answers to any questions during training camp. “Oh, everything was a big question mark. This was the first time in a long time that I was able to compete at a high level consistently. How long would I be able to go, day in and day out before stuff started to hurt? Would everything be functional on contact? And everything was very functional, and I can compete at a high level.” Helu hobbled through camp in 2012 and didn’t last past three games during the regular season. But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner say Helu looks like the player that contributed both in the run and passing game as a rookie. It appears his speed will serve as a nice complement to Alfred Morris’s power, and Helu’s pass-catching ability will serve the team well on third downs, when Washington lacked a threat out of the backfield last season.
  • Davis is back: Fred Davis doesn’t look like a guy who ruptured an Achilles’ tendon last season. Instead, he looks like the tight end was putting up Pro Bowl numbers the year before last. There have been no setbacks, and Davis has fit back into the offense with ease. He appears to have a better connection with Robert Griffin III than he did early last season, when he, Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and Santana Moss all were learning their roles in the offense together. A healthy Davis means yet another weapon for an offense that started clicking even without him last season. Griffin now figures to have two more go-to guys on third downs with Davis and Helu healthy. You can never have too many weapons. Garcon remains the top receiving threat. But if defenses devote their attention to taking him away, there’s Davis, Helu, Morgan or Moss waiting to make a play.
  • Pass rush will improve: Look for a lot more creativity out of Haslett’s defensive front now that the team has a healthy Brian Orakpo, a more seasoned Ryan Kerrigan, free agent addition Darryl Tapp and rookie Brandon Jenkins in the mix. And, there also is Rob Jackson, who will return after the fourth game of the season. We already saw a glimpse of the problems that the bolstered front can make for offenses. “That first third down [against Tennessee] was perfect,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “You couldn’t collapse the pocket more perfectly. Having ‘Rak back, and all the other guys, makes us so much better.” Haslett praised the smooth transition that Tapp has made from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker. And although Jenkins still is learning how to play in coverage, his skills as a pass rusher will be put to use. Improvement up front should help mask some deficiencies in the secondary.

Questions that remain:

  • Can Brandon Meriweather make it back? – Safety remains a shaky area for the Redskins. Rambo helps answer some questions at free safety, but with Meriweather still not back to full strength and Phillip Thomas lost for the season, the struggles could continue. Sure, Redskins coaches say they have the dependable Reed Doughty, and Jordan Pugh and DeJon Gomes are competing at that spot as well. But while those players are serviceable, a healthy Meriweather can be a difference-maker. He has the ability not only to make plays against the run, but he can cover wide receivers and tight ends in both man and zone coverage. This past week represented Meriweather’s most extensive stretch of action as he practiced four straight days. It wasn’t a full workload, but heavier than the first two weeks of camp. The hope is that his surgically repaired knee continues to improve and that he will be ready for the start of the season. We’ll see.
  • Is inside linebacker depth a problem? London Fletcher is a Pro Bowl linebacker and coach on the field. Perry Riley could have a Pro Bowl season this year, Haslett believes. But what happens if one of them, particularly the 38-year-old Fletcher, gets hurt? The next option would’ve been Keenan Robinson, but he is lost for the season. Bryan Kehl is a sixth-year veteran and has a good understanding of the defense, but can the career backup serve as a difference-maker if called upon on a full-time basis? The Redskins are happy to have Nick Barnett in the mix. With 10 years of starting experience and great knowledge of the system after having played it Green Bay, he seems like a perfect fit. But, he is coming off offseason knee surgery and hasn’t handled a full workload in camp. The Redskins want him to take it slowly, and he will not play Monday against Pittsburgh. The target date is next Saturday against Buffalo. If his knee can hold up, Barnett can be used to spell Fletcher and Riley. The experience drops off significantly after that. And the other top backup, Roddrick Muckelroy, has missed the last week with a shoulder injury.
  • Will Robert Griffin III return for Week 1? The quarterback says he has “no doubt” that he will. His coach and general manager say they hope so, but “don’t know if it will happen.” Griffin’s reconstructed right knee appeared to respond favorably to ramped-up activity this past week. He even showed some elusiveness as he ran a zone-read keeper on Friday. So far, all signs point to Griffin returning in Week 1. But if there is any tweak, soreness or swelling, or setback of some kind, his goal could become unlikely. The Redskins feel good about Kirk Cousins, but there’s no question that Griffin gives them the best chance to win. We’ll see if they get him back to kick off the season, or if his debut is pushed back a bit.
  • Other question areas: Offensive line depth (particularly at left tackle), kick returner (is it Niles Paul, rookie running back Chris Thompson or an undrafted receiver such as Skye Dawson, Chip Reeves or Nick Williams?), backup wide receiver competition (where Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson’s flash, then struggle, and Donte Stallworth has been hobbled).

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

What’s ahead:

● Washington hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday at 8 p.m. in their first game of the preseason at FedEx Field.

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo |@MarkMaske | @Insider | Insider on Facebook

More on the Redskins:

Redskins say they’re unconcerned by RGIII-Shanahan tension, but others see trouble signs

Observations from Friday’s final practice of training camp

Chase Minnifield “held to a high standard” by his football star father

Jenkins: Griffin doesn’t know his limits, and Shanahan sees shades of Elway in that

Orakpo unconcerned about thigh injury | GM Allen says Richmond a success

Allen on Salary-cap penalty & final roster | Griffin and Shanahan

Fletcher voices approval of HGH near-deal

D.C. Sports Bog: Cleveland Park listserv bans ‘Redskins’ | More Bog

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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