By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; D01
Asked recently whether he would first attempt to acquire a franchise-caliber quarterback or a left tackle to anchor the offensive line, Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan smiled and responded, "You'll just have to wait to find out."
A surprising April 4 trade brought Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb to Washington from NFC East rival Philadelphia. With an elite player and proven winner at the position for the first time during owner Daniel Snyder's 11-year tenure, many analysts expect Shanahan to shift his focus to the offensive line -- the Redskins' weakest unit since the middle of the 2008 season. Tackles Trent Williams of Oklahoma and Russell Okung of Oklahoma State are potential first-year impact players who might be available when the Redskins pick early in the opening round of the three-day draft that begins Thursday in New York City, so help could arrive soon.
"I think I'm ready to come in and play for anyone who wants to draft me," Williams said in a phone interview late last week. "I know what I can do and how to play this game. I guess you could say I'm very instinctive. I've just got a feel for football. I know football, so that's what a team gets if they draft me."
In an e-mail response to a reporter's question about the possibility of him joining the Redskins, Okung wrote: "They have a great tradition for O line. And with Coach Shanahan added to the mix the tradition should continue. It would be an honor playing for the Redskins and Coach Shanahan."
Despite holding only four picks (including the fourth overall) and having many needs, the Redskins finally appear poised to begin a long-overdue line overhaul, beginning at tackle. Williams (6 feet 4, 315 pounds) and Okung (6-5, 307) are widely considered the best at their position in this class. "They'll be the first two [tackles] taken," said a longtime AFC offensive line coach, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss his draft evaluations publicly. "It'll be one and then the other, whatever the order is."
Although the retirement of Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels in March opened a hole at the most important position along the line, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on Sunday said he was "real excited about our offensive line." Players, however, would welcome reinforcements.
"One thing you know about Mike Shanahan is he's going to protect his quarterback," center Casey Rabach, the team's steadiest lineman, said recently in a phone interview. "I definitely think we have a lot of capable guys, and we take a lot of pride in what we do, but we did struggle at times last year and we've lost a lot with Chris retiring. Those are some big shoes to fill, so if they look to the draft to try to make us better, I think that's a good thing."
Samuels, who will represent the Redskins during the first round at Radio City Music Hall, missed most of the 2009 season after suffering a severe neck injury. Already lacking talent and depth with Samuels healthy, the line was further exposed without its best player for much of a 4-12 season.
Since 2000, the Redskins have selected just four offensive linemen in the top four rounds of the draft, with only Samuels (a third overall pick) becoming a star. With the second overall pick Thursday, the Detroit Lions -- who chose quarterback Matthew Stafford first overall in 2009 -- might pick Okung. The Redskins are believed to be extremely high on the athletic Williams (during the NFL combine, he was officially timed at 4.88 seconds in the 40-yard dash), who some talent evaluators believe has the most upside of any lineman in this draft. And Williams displayed his versatility while starting at center and playing well during the Sooners' 31-27 victory over Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
"I think what people get excited about is the fact that he went and played center," said the AFC line coach. "Trent played the whole game at center, and I don't think he's ever done that before. . . . I would say if I was going to pick one [a tackle], he'd probably be the way I would go. Even though he showed he can play center, everyone is going to put him at tackle. Obviously, you're not going to draft him and play him at center. He's got the usual thing to work on, which is his strength.
"If he has trouble early it's going to be that. That's the thing with a lot of young guys coming into the league. He's obviously athletic. He's got the tools to do everything you want him to do. You would think that he'd be able to come in right away and help you this year. The only concern with him, I'd think, would be holding up physically. Kind of like what [New York Jets tackle] D'Brickashaw Ferguson went through with being a very good athlete with not a huge frame. But it didn't take him too long to get settled in. He started right away also."
A former right tackle, Williams moved to the left side for the Sooners last season. Some NFL people believe Williams will be an effective left tackle from the outset of his career, and others view him as being better suited for the right side, "but I know I can play" left tackle, Williams said. "I like left because I've been playing it all my life. It's a little easier for me. Like I said, I'm instinctive. It's something I know I can do."
Regardless of position, Williams was the most skilled lineman the talent-rich Sooners have had in some time, said Kevin Wilson, Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. Formerly the team's offensive line coach, Wilson recruited Williams out of high school, and "Trent is a better athlete and a more talented guy than Jammal Brown," he said of the New Orleans Saints' left tackle, who was the 13th overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Oklahoma. "His talent level, his intelligence, great kid, great family. He has all the ingredients to me. He has a lot of upside. I think he's still just scratching the surface. I don't think he's close to playing up to his talent level yet."
And that's the thing. Some teams apparently have questions about Williams's work ethic, which is nothing new.
Williams and Redskins wide receiver Malcolm Kelly were high school and college teammates (Redskins linebacker Robert Henson also attended Longview High in Longview, Tex., with Williams and Kelly). Since their prep days, Williams has displayed so much innate ability that "some people always think he should be doing more," Kelly said in a phone interview last week. "Sometimes, someone says something about you, and that sticks, even if it's not true. It's just the perception.
"But when you look at Trent on film, when you see what he does, just his athleticism is much better than other guys. Look at what he ran [in the 40-yard dash] at the combine. It was night and day from most of the linemen, and he's the same size as most of those guys. He's real put together and he's real quick on his feet. He knows how to play, especially when he really, really wants to turn it on. He can be really dominant. He's going to be a stable for somebody, whoever gets him. I hope it's us."
Last season, only two quarterbacks were sacked more than former Redskins starter Jason Campbell (43). In 2008, only three quarterbacks were sacked more than Campbell (38). The Redskins have made a major investment in McNabb, whom they gave up two high draft picks to acquire and are paying more than $11.7 million in base salary and bonuses this season. So adding a young, talented tackle to the roster presumably would be a good move, even if this tackle class overall is not considered among the best of all time.
"I have some issues with all of the offensive tackles," said Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN's longtime draft analyst. "They're not the elite of the elite coming out. They're not Jonathan Ogden coming out. They're not Tony Boselli, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones. But they are potentially as good.
"The other guys, you were pretty secure in the fact, and firm in the fact, that these guys were big time. These guys have the potential to be big time. But at the end of the day, they could be a slight disappointment as well."
Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.