By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008
As the Washington Redskins prepare to kick off the NFL's regular season next week against the New York Giants, longtime starting right tackle Jon Jansen could lose his job, and rookie wide receiver Malcolm Kelly might be sidelined for the season because of recurring knee problems, Coach Jim Zorn said yesterday.
After a shaky preseason in which he struggled in pass protection, Jansen, the senior member of Washington's offensive line, and second-year tackle Stephon Heyer are battling for a spot on the first-team offense.
Heyer started in place of Jansen, sidelined because of a sprained left foot, as the Redskins finished the preseason in Thursday's 24-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at FedEx Field. Jansen is expected to be back at practice this week in preparation for Thursday's nationally televised game at Giants Stadium.
The Redskins are not as optimistic about Kelly's situation. Among the rookies the Redskins had hoped would contribute immediately, Kelly sat out the preseason after arthroscopic left knee surgery. Kelly was supposed to make his pro debut last Saturday but suffered a setback in warmups, prompting the Redskins to consider putting him on injured reserve and ending his first NFL season.
For the second time in as many weeks, Washington's offensive starters struggled in a key tune-up for the opener, producing 14 yards and no first downs on seven plays in three first-quarter series against Jacksonville's top defensive group. Although still confident Washington has the right players to execute the West Coast scheme he has installed, Zorn acknowledged there are problems offensively and difficult decisions as the roster must be trimmed today from 75 to the 53-man limit.
"I feel very confident that we're going to have the best group out there that will give us a chance to win," Zorn said while meeting with reporters at Redskins Park. "We will focus in and zero in on some of the things that we really want to do now. I feel like we're in the beginning stages of being able to put our best foot forward with our absolute best group that we could put out on the field."
Whether Jansen and Kelly are among the group remains to be seen. Injured Aug. 23 in a 47-3 loss to Carolina, Jansen sat out practice last week. Heyer, who missed time in the preseason after spraining his right knee Aug. 3 in a 30-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, impressed Zorn with his solid outing against Jacksonville.
Despite the overall poor performance of the offensive starters, the offensive line rebounded after its awful showing against Carolina, and Heyer "helped himself," Zorn said.
"He stepped in and played right tackle, which is what he did when Jon was injured [last season], and he shored things up for us over there. That's going to be a battle. That's a very close battle. Now that Stephon is playing, he has a chance to play some this year."
Jansen, beginning his 10th NFL season, all with the Redskins, broke his ankle in the 2007 opener against the Miami Dolphins and missed the remainder of the season. Heyer, an undrafted rookie free agent last season, and veteran tackle Todd Wade, who has missed most of the preseason because of an ankle injury, started on the right side while Jansen was out, but Jansen was expected to reclaim his spot this season.
Jansen was ineffective against speed rushers Aug. 16 in a 13-10 victory over the Jets and in the Carolina debacle, opening the door for Heyer "to compete for the position. I would say that," Zorn said. "I'm not giving up on Jon Jansen. He's been a great part of this offense. But we're just evaluating, and I thought Stephon came in and did a good job."
Zorn would not commit to Jansen starting against the Giants. "That remains to be seen because of his health," Zorn said. "I want him to practice. I want him to get out there and show he can really anchor on that ankle."
Jansen received $10 million in guaranteed money after the 2006 season. During the team's coaching search, some candidates raised the issue of cutting Jansen, but they were told it would be too expensive to do before the 2008 season, according to multiple people involved in the process.
Jansen has had two major injuries the previous four seasons. He missed the 2004 season after rupturing his Achilles' in the preseason Hall of Fame game and came back to start every game in 2005. He is not ready to step aside.
"It's always an open competition every year," Jansen said. "We'll just see how things go."
As for Kelly, he was expected to provide an immediate boost for the receiving corps. Drafted out of Oklahoma as one of the team's three second-round picks, Kelly was among the Redskins' most impressive rookies early in camp, coaches and players said.
However, Kelly and rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas -- the Redskins' top pick -- incurred the wrath of Zorn because of their poor performances in a conditioning drill. Initially slowed in camp because of a hamstring injury, Kelly underwent arthroscopic surgery Aug. 4 on his left knee.
Because of the complexities of the Redskins' version of the West Coast offense and the learning curve of rookies in the NFL, Zorn said he does not expect contributions from Kelly and Thomas, who struggled in three preseason games, early in the season. And Kelly's knee injury is a long-term concern.
"We've got to develop a plan for him," Zorn said. "I'm not sure exactly what that's going to entail."
The Redskins plan to consider many options, Zorn said. They could keep Kelly active while he continues to rehab or place him on the physically unable to perform list, which would sideline him a minimum of six weeks. Or there is injured reserve. "We have to deal with the reality of his knee not responding well right now," Zorn said.
With the roster having to be set by 6 p.m., the decision on a punter is among the most difficult for Zorn. The competition between veteran Derrick Frost and rookie Durant Brooks has ended, and the Redskins are "just letting things simmer right now," Zorn said. Special teams coach Danny Smith will have significant input in the decision, and the Redskins will take a collaborative approach to selecting the roster.
Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice president of football operations, Scott Campbell, director of player personnel, and Bubba Tyer, director of sports medicine, are among the many Redskins officials who will be involved, Zorn said.
"I would never make an independent decision and say, 'This is the way it is, and that's it,' because it's not," Zorn said. "In this game it's a team effort.
"Vinny and Scott have not evaluated those players to not have an opinion about how they've seen them progress, or not progress, so they've got a thought or two in the mix. We're all eventually going to have a thought process in there. We've got to give 'em the best-case scenario, regardless of monies, regardless of veterans. We owe it to ourselves to at least suggest the best 53 to begin with."
And Zorn will have the final vote? "I hope so," he said.
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.