When the Washington Redskins take the field Thursday night for their preseason opener against the New England Patriots, fans might catch a glimpse of things to come in the Jay Gruden era. Perhaps quarterback Robert Griffin III and his supporting cast will provide a few fireworks in the limited slate scripted for them by Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay. Maybe Jim Haslett’s revamped defense will show signs of rebounding from a trying 2013.
But given that the starters are expected to play just eight to 10 snaps and considering that several injured players will not play at all, the preseason opener carries much more significance for the young, unproven members of Washington’s team.
Among those in pursuit of roles and roster spots, five recent draft picks — inside linebacker Keenan Robinson, running back Chris Thompson, safety Bacarri Rambo, guard Josh LeRibeus and offensive tackle Morgan Moses — find themselves in various positions on the depth chart, but all have questions to answer.
The Redskins knew London Fletcher wouldn’t play forever.
So in 2012, they used a fourth-round pick to draft Robinson out of the University of Texas. The plan called for Robinson to get spot duty as a rookie and perhaps work his way into a rotational role the following season.
But injuries robbed him of half of his rookie season and all of last season.
Thus Robinson’s grooming process didn’t go according to plan, but Washington’s coaches still believe he is ready to take over as the anchor and signal-caller of the defense.
Because he remained at Redskins Park for his rehabilitation programs, the 6-foot-3, 238-pounder continued to attend all of the defensive meetings the past two years. So he knows the defense, and coaches said he makes the calls with ease.
“He’s got a ways to go, but I think he’s got the smarts to handle it, which is very, very important,” Gruden said. “He’s got the poise. Obviously he’s got the athletic ability. Now, like I said before, it’s a matter of putting it together on game day and finishing tackles.”
Said Robinson: “For me, I just want to be able to go out there and ball out, man. I want to execute the plan, execute the plays and show them that they were right for sticking by me through all the injuries. I’m definitely excited about it. It’s been a long time coming — a year-and-a-half since I played. But I think I’ll be fine.”
Offensively, the Redskins have most key positions filled. But Washington’s coaches still don’t know who will play the role of third-down back. Fourth-year pro Roy Helu Jr. has the most experience, but Washington used a fifth-round pick to select Thompson out of Florida State and believe he could prove more dynamic, if healthy.
That’s no small “if” for Thompson, who lost the bulk of his rookie season to a shoulder injury that required surgery, broke his back as a junior in college and tore an anterior cruciate ligament as a senior.
“We want him to be our Darren Sproles, to come out of the backfield and run routes, be a change-of-pace back for us,” Griffin said of Thompson. “He’s dynamically fast. I think everybody is gonna see that this year as opposed to last year. And he’s got good hands, runs good routes. He’s got confidence back in his body.”
Thompson figures to receive plenty of opportunities Thursday night and in the other preseason games.
At a generously-listed height of 5-9 and 193 pounds, does he possess the necessary durability?
Throughout the offseason and training camp of his rookie year last year, Rambo drew praise from coaches for his intelligence and athleticism. The expectations for the one-time all-American at Georgia exceeded those of a typical sixth-round draft pick, and he entered training camp as the starter.
But once the preseason games began, Rambo was exposed for his tackling struggles. Running back Chris Johnson embarrassed Rambo in the preseason opener, then LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles made Rambo whiff badly in the regular season opener. Two weeks later, Rambo was benched and saw only spot duty the remainder of the season.
“He is where he is,” Gruden said. “He’s playing. He’s trying to get better, but he’s another guy that it’s going to be very important to see how he does in the preseason games and if he has improved in his tackling.”
Thus far, Rambo’s training camp has featured more lowlights than highlights. He has had a hand in a few group tackles, and he had an interception and two pass breakups this week in scrimmages against the Patriots.
But he has given up his share of pass plays. Rambo also has continued to miss tackles during one-on-one drills.
Despite those struggles, Rambo said he feels better and more prepared this year.
“I don’t put pressure on myself. That’s what I did last year,” said Rambo, who likely will start with Ryan Clark sidelined. “I’m just going to go out there, have fun and go out there and ball and do whatever I have to do.”
In two of the past three drafts, Washington has invested third-round picks in offensive linemen with the goal of grooming them into starters relatively quickly.
The team selected LeRibeus in 2012 and Moses this past spring.
The hope was that by Year 2, LeRibeus would have developed into a starter, but last season was lost for the Southern Methodist product. His weight ballooned during the offseason, and he spent the year working to get back into shape rather than pushing veteran teammates for playing time.
Now in his third year, LeRibeus needs a strong preseason to remain on the roster. He has kept his weight under control, but his play has been uneven during practices.
“He’s come in here, and he’s competing like everybody else, but we just need to see more consistent play from him, and I think he’s trying to do the best he can,” Gruden said.
Moses, too, is struggling to play at a high level consistently. Washington drafted him out of Virginia with the hope he could compete with Tyler Polumbus for the starting right tackle job.
But Moses struggled during the offseason to gain comfort on the right side after playing predominantly on the left in college. Throughout camp, he has played behind Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams instead of challenging Polumbus.
Last week, with Polumbus out of practice for two days, third-year pro Tom Compton stepped in, so apparently Moses remains behind.
“You come out here every day and try to get better at your technique and try to put it all together tomorrow and put something good on film,” Moses said.
Touching on his expectations for the game, Gruden said he’ll keep things simple.
“We’re just trying to find guys who can play and trying to put them in a situation where they can play football and succeed,” Gruden said. “The biggest thing is: When the lights come on, how do you perform when the pressure is on? People will be watching.”