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For Redskins’ unheralded offensive players pressed into duty, opportunity knocks

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The Washington Redskins, a franchise with a reputation for reckless spending and a documented history of giant free agent contracts, will enter Sunday’s game against Buffalo with one of the least-expensive offenses in football.

With injuries claiming five regular starters, Washington will go with a makeshift lineup that features many unproven players. Perennial playmakers such as Santana Moss and Chris Cooley are injured. Taking their place will be rookies and young players who earn a lot less money and who are still trying to find their place in the league.

“We brought them in here for a reason,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “You’re just hoping they go out there and the game’s not too big for them.”

Shanahan won’t reveal Sunday’s exact starting lineup, but the Redskins’ likely offensive starters are costing the team about $12 million this season. That’s less than some of the league’s elite players — stars such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Michael Vick — earn on their own. Only the Denver Broncos will have a starting offense this weekend with a lower total base salary.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” linebacker London Fletcher said of the team’s revamped lineup. “A football game is still going to be played on Sunday. Whoever’s in there has to play well. That's just the way it is.”

The total base salary of the Redskins’ offensive starters in Week 1 was nearly $25 million, but that group included Moss, Cooley, running back Tim Hightower and left tackle Trent Williams.

When the injury-riddled Redskins face the Bills on Sunday, they will be lacking in star power. But coaches are counting on their less-experienced players to step up.

"When I was having breakfast this morning,” quarterback John Beck said, “we were talking about it, ‘Okay, we have a handful of guys who are down. That’s odd. That usually doesn’t happen.’ But we believe in the guys that we have.”

Beck is scheduled to earn a salary of $800,000 and a roster bonus of $350,000 this season. There were 51 quarterbacks at the start of the year who were expected to earn more this season. The only NFL starters this Sunday who earn less are Cincinnati rookie Andy Dalton, a second-round pick, and Cleveland’s Colt McCoy, a third-rounder in 2010. In all, most backup quarterbacks take home more than Beck. So do many third-stringers.

While players such as the 30-year-old Beck aren’t exactly rookies, several inexperienced backups will get a chance Sunday to show they belong. A total of 20 players on the 53-man active roster have played fewer than two seasons in the NFL, including 13 on offense.

“I’ve seen some fire in the younger guys’ eyes,” said Beck, who’s still searching for his first win as an NFL quarterback. “I don’t think they’re saying, ‘Uh-oh, now it’s my turn. How am I going to do?’ They’re saying, ‘Okay, this is my turn, I’m going to go out there and prove that I can do it.’ And that’s how you’ve got to be.”

Most of the Redskins’ money — and most of their experience — can be found on the offensive line, not at the skill positions. Without Moss and Cooley, right tackle Jammal Brown is the offense’s only player who’s played in a Pro Bowl, and he twice earned that honor playing on the left side of the line.

Salaries in the NFL often correlate with experience as much as success, and many players receive hefty bonuses in addition to their base salaries. When Moss re-signed in July, he agreed to a 2011 base salary of just $2.25 million but also received a bonus of $5 million. And for good reason: He might be the toughest player on offense to replace.

“He’s kind of been that guy — our go-to guy,” Beck said. “So to not have him, we definitely have to have somebody step up and step up quick.”

Without Moss, several young wide receivers should see more playing time. Anthony Armstrong started 11 games last season, but it was rookie Niles Paul who started last Sunday at Carolina. Terrence Austin is a good option in the slot, and rookie Leonard Hankerson was active for the first time last Sunday.

“Obviously, I’m still learning from those guys,” Paul said. “Pretty much they’re all my teachers, and I’m just out there trying to show them and impress them.”

Moss will miss at least the next three games with a broken bone in his hand. The 11-year veteran says when the young receivers come to him with questions, he tries to provide guidance.

“See, my locker is right here next to Santana,” Hankerson said, with a nod to his neighbor. “So I talk to him all the time.”

The Redskins used two tight ends to start their first five games but began last Sunday’s game with three receivers instead. Logan Paulsen replaced Cooley as the No. 2 tight end. Shanahan could go with three receivers, two tight ends or fullback Darrel Young could see his first start of the year.

“Chris is a very well-rounded player. I'm just going to step in and do the best I can,” said Paulsen, who matched last year’s season total with two catches against the Panthers.

At tailback, the Redskins have only two players on their active roster — Ryan Torain and Roy Helu — though Shanahan could activate Evan Royster or Tristan Davis from the practice squad later in the week.

Torain has 10 career starts, including one this season. His contract calls for him to earn $525,000 this year. At the start of the season, 94 NFL running backs were scheduled to earn more. Hightower was the Redskins’ better-paid option; he will earn $1.835 million for what amounts to 51 / 2 games of work. Every other NFL team has at least one million-dollar rusher. Most have two and some feature three.

For the Redskins who will play Sunday, that no longer matters.

“This is how people stake a claim for themselves,” Beck said. “This is how young guys step up and they make their name an important one.”

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