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.
"It all depends on the game," Hixon said. "It's all about productivity in the game. I have had players that's been all-world, all-NFL in practice, and in the ballgame don't show up. That's why we have preseason games."
In addition to Shelton, Hackett was the only other candidate for the fifth spot to make a catch against the Ravens, snaring two. Hagans was thrown to twice, overthrown on the sideline in addition to his drop.
"The first time dealing with adversity didn't go as well as I planned," said Hagans, who spent time with the Rams, Chiefs, Colts and Redskins last year. "Definitely didn't expect to go out and play like that. It's just a matter of bouncing back and continuing to fight."
Eloi is a rookie out of Division II Nebraska-Omaha and is best known for YouTube videos that show him jumping out of a swimming pool backwards and leaping over a tailgate into the back of a pickup truck.
Hixon called Eloi "probably the best athlete of the bunch" and Smith said plays like his kickoff tackle against the Ravens, as a safety, are "hard for a rookie safety to do. . . . We've had a lot of guys who haven't made that play."
Eloi said this week that he would be excited for the opportunity to play on the practice squad, because that means "the guy is good, we'd like to keep him here, but he still has a lot to learn. And you have nothing to do but respect that."
Hagans, Shelton, Eloi and Mitchell are all eligible for the practice squad, so it's likely three of the five in the hunt for the fifth spot will still technically be Redskins come September. But they all remain in the hunt for a spot on the active roster, though Mitchell has perhaps received the most buzz.
At 6 feet 4, Mitchell brings size that none of the others do. Hixon said despite not making any catches against Baltimore he ran good routes. He drew praise from teammates after standing up to veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall in a scuffle last week.
After practice Thursday, Clinton Portis told reporters, "Marko Mitchell is killing [starting cornerback] Carlos Rogers in practice."
Moss said Mitchell has gained the respect of the Redskins' secondary, earning the nickname Lanky Love-a-spin, and that defensive backs such as safety LaRon Landry "talk about him every day."
"That goes to show you're doing something interesting to him and those guys are watching you," Moss said. "You're important on their daily plan when it comes to stopping someone in practice. He's been getting the best of them."
The muddiness of the situation -- Does the fifth wide receiver have to play special teams? Who will perform in games? Which guys could benefit from time on the practice squad? -- will only be resolved with preseason games, Hixon stressed.
"What you do, tells us who you are," he said. "If you do it -- make plays -- you're a playmaker. If you don't make plays, you're not a playmaker. I don't care how much you say you are, what you do says who you are."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.