By Jason LaCanfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009
The bluster and swagger and immaturity are no longer as evident. Devin Thomas isn't nearly as cocksure, Malcolm Kelly's freestyle rap skills are not a topic of conversation and Fred Davis isn't answering questions about changing hotel rooms, malfunctioning alarm clocks and sleeping through practice.
The first three players drafted by the Redskins a year ago are rookies no more and, after a season of disappointment, face expectations increased by the knowledge that Coach Jim Zorn's hopes of diversifying and expanding the offense rest with them, embattled quarterback Jason Campbell and a beleaguered offensive line.
Already this spring, merely keeping wide receivers Thomas and Kelly healthy has been difficult. On the first day of the team's three-day minicamp Friday, Thomas re-aggravated the right hamstring injury that sidelined him for much of 2008 training camp. Kelly did not participate, as his left knee continues to heal from microfracture surgery. Both are expected to be able to participate in organized team activities in June.
Still, all three are in noticeably better condition than they were a year ago, when a lack of mental and physical stamina stunted their development. The sense of entitlement and naivete that defined them at times last season is no longer on display.
"We all felt like we were supposed to come in right away and play," said Davis, a tight end out of the University of Southern California. "We were all coming in from big schools, and we had a lot of expectations. Devin [Michigan State] got hurt early and then had trouble with the playbook or whatever the situation was, but I know that affected him. And Malcolm [Oklahoma], getting hurt early, and then me messing up in my own way by not doing what I'm supposed to do, and not being here on time [missing a practice at last May's mini-camp], that affected me. A coach has got to have trust in a player, and I feel like I didn't get that right away and I needed it. So now this is the year for us to show what we can do."
Glaring mistakes like running the wrong route or not knowing when to run block or release into a pass pattern, which occurred frequently in 2008, will no longer be tolerated. Far too much is at stake.
Although they offered contracts to free agent wide receivers Kelley Washington and D.J. Hackett yesterday, the Redskins have done little to enhance their skill positions despite an offensive attack that struggled to score in the second half of an 8-8 season. They believe they have speed and a vertical threat in Thomas, an intermediate complement to Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley in Davis, and a target slot receiver on third downs and in the red zone in Kelly. Whether all, or any of them, can meet the challenge will be a large part of what determines whether the team can make the offensive gains Zorn wants in his second season as a head coach.
"Hopefully, we're looking for one sure starter out of those guys," Zorn said, "and Fred will not beat out Chris Cooley."
For Thomas, 22, and Davis, 23, the roadblocks in 2008 were largely of their own creation as they struggled with the multiplicity of an NFL offense. They failed to win over coaches and teammates, Campbell in particular, by running consistently imprecise routes in a system that demands exact execution, and they paid for that with sporadic playing time. Kelly, 22, flashed the brightest in training camp, but his knee problems flared up repeatedly and he had microfracture surgery in February. Overcoming those issues drives him, Kelly says, and he is not content to merely contribute after catching only three passes for 18 yards in 2008.
"If I just wanted to settle for being out there and get a catch here and get a catch there, that would be one thing," Kelly said." But I've really got confidence in myself. And my teammates and Jason got confidence in me . . . so I plan on having a big season."
Given that Zorn wants to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically with two-tight end sets, Davis would seem to have an increased role since he is one of the best pure athletes on the roster. A year ago he could not displace journeyman Todd Yoder as the primary backup to Cooley, and getting him downfield is important.
"For me, what I'm banking on is the versatility of our personnel groups, and trying to exploit that," Zorn said.
Thomas was the wildest of the bunch. He never backed up his brashness and often appeared to be in denial about how poor his rookie season, in which he caught 15 passes for 120 yards and no touchdowns, was. "I had to lick my wounds and contemplate the whole season, kind of sit back," Thomas said. "It's tough not really playing a lot, and when I did play not getting the ball a whole lot. But the whole offense was struggling and this year we're looking to step it up in all areas, and I'm one of the areas that has to step up."
Thomas says he realizes that his success is linked to his relationship with Campbell, and he is spending his offseason working out at Redskins Park. Zorn believes he could push to start at the "Z" spot, as an outside receiver on the right side of the field, as he is now more eager to stay after workouts to run routes for Campbell.
"He had to do that," Campbell said. "That's something he needs to do. He's been out here catching balls and working hard and he's maturing and growing in a lot of areas. I hate that he's had to miss practice at mini-camp because this is an important time for him to get reps and get into a routine of us working together, but hopefully we get him back soon."
In addition to Thomas, top wideout Santana Moss (shin splints) and veteran James Thrash (neck) are also expected out until June. At this point, with the progress of the youngsters not yet certain, the Redskins lack a dependable No. 3 receiver. Should Moss and Antwaan Randle El falter -- both have been prone to injuries and droughts in recent years -- it would take big gains by Thomas, Kelly and Davis to help fill the void, with the fate of an inexperienced coach and an embattled young quarterback hanging in the balance.