Redskins Players Battle for Final Wide Receiver Roster Spot

The Washington Post's Jason Reid talks about the Redskins' upcoming game against the Steelers. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Bill Oram
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

For each sky-high pass Marko Mitchell pulls down at the sideline, D.J. Hackett and Trent Shelton make a play that displays the understanding that comes with having spent time in Coach Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. When a wide receiver makes a mistake, such as when Marques Hagans dropped a pass over the middle in last week's preseason opener, coaches notice. When one makes a play on special teams, such as Keith Eloi's tackle on a kickoff last week, eyebrows rise.

And so goes the battle, day after day, for the fifth wide receiver spot on the Washington Redskins, who play their first home preseason game Saturday against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's still wide open," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "We've only played one game. After four games you'll have a good idea based on what we need, how a person helps at a certain spot."

The battle for the last wide receiver slot has emerged as one of the most intriguing competitions in training camp this month. Common logic says with Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly ensured roster spots, the fifth wide receiver will need to make his mark primarily on special teams.

"That's probably the most important role that he can have as the fifth receiver," said Shelton, who played in the same offense last year as a member of Seattle's practice squad and had one catch against the Ravens. "When you have an opportunity to make plays on special teams, you've got to do it. I think that would be a major factor."

Of the five players competing for the wide receiver spot, Hackett is the only one who doesn't play special teams, though Mitchell -- who had 153 catches in three years at Nevada -- never did before this camp. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith said Mitchell has a "real long way to go, but he's really made vast improvement."

On the flip side, Zorn, in his second season with Washington after serving as quarterbacks coach in Seattle, hinted earlier this month he may be comfortable having a fifth wide receiver who doesn't play special teams, using Hackett as an example.

"I think it is very important," he said, "but if he excels at the wide receiver position, I can't give that up either. That is where problems come in for head coaches and special teams coaches. It is just a problem we come up with every year. I think this year is going to be one of those years, from our standpoint."

Zorn is familiar with Hackett from their days in Seattle. And though Hackett joined the team late -- he wasn't signed until Aug. 5, nearly a week into camp -- he is adept at the West Coast offense after playing in Mike Holmgren's system for four years in Seattle.

"When you're late, you definitely want to have a familiarization with the offense," Hackett said. "It definitely helps."

So what that means is a headache for coaches as they try to determine how best to utilize the last wide receiver.

With four everyday wideouts, the fifth is not likely to play much offense unless the starters are nicked up, Hixon said. That, he added, is why preseason games are so crucial. With Moss playing Saturday -- he missed the Ravens game with a sore hamstring -- there will be even fewer opportunities for those trying to catch on.

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