Competition is intense for Washington Redskins wide receivers

by Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; 11:28 PM

There would seem to be no more innocuous occurrence at Washington Redskins training camp than what happened here shortly after 8:30 a.m. Monday. Donovan McNabb, the starting quarterback wearing a yellow jersey, dropped back under a gray sky and hit Terrence Austin, then Bobby Wade, then Anthony Armstrong. No defensive backs were in sight, and such a skeleton drill is as basic a training camp endeavor as there is.

Then, there is the matter of how the head coach sees such a pursuit.

"Everything has been charted out," Mike Shanahan said. "Every drop, catch. We look at everything."

Cancel that innocuousness, then, because if you are Austin or Wade or Armstrong or any of the seven other receivers on the field for Redskins workouts this week, each of those drills is being parsed, and each one matters. With only one preseason game gone by and three more ahead, there is sorting out to do in much of Shanahan's first Redskins team. But the outcome at wide receiver, where veteran Santana Moss is in and anybody else could - potentially - be out, may be most perplexing of all.

Thus, when Roydell Williams - a veteran trying to make it back into the NFL after two years interrupted by injury - entered last week's preseason opener against Buffalo, he did so as a second-stringer, because he had performed well in training camp and throughout off-season drills. When he walked off the practice field Monday - after Armstrong caught a touchdown pass against the Bills, after Austin made two catches and fellow rookie Brandon Banks returned a punt for a touchdown - Williams was listed with the fourth team.

"I think I need to prove myself," Williams said.

That makes him no different than anyone else who shows up for work trying to catch passes in Ashburn. Moss, by virtue of his preparation and past performance - 500 career receptions in nine NFL seasons, including 349 in his five years with the Redskins - will make the team and almost certainly start. So the fact that he was the target of just one pass against Buffalo is the lone stat from that game that can be forgotten.

Everything else is important. Joey Galloway, the 38-year-old, 15-year veteran who - for now - is the starter opposite Moss, had only one opportunity for a catch, on a deep sideline route that McNabb overthrew, and enters the second preseason game still looking to impress. Bobby Wade, a seven-year veteran who said this week, "You never know if this is going to be your last year, last opportunity," was the target of seven passes, but made only two catches.

Williams caught one pass - and made a nice move afterward, picking up 21 yards - but couldn't corral the other two balls that came his way, including an outright drop on third down of the Redskins' first series.

"Look at the group we have here," Moss said earlier in camp. "There's guys pushing each other all over the place, guys with experience, younger guys. We got lots to offer."

But when final cuts are made, only five - or maybe six - will be doing the offering. Mike Furrey, a veteran signed during the offseason, has been out of practice with a concussion and appears to be the longest shot to make the team.

Third-year wide receiver Malcolm Kelly has practiced just one day of training camp because of a hamstring problem, and as Shanahan said Monday, "Obviously, if you can't practice, he can't show me anything." Devin Thomas, another third-year player, has been relegated to the third team, but he used three catches against the Bills, including a 44-yard touchdown reception, to reestablish himself to some degree.

Given the opportunity, some of the players with less-than-sexy backgrounds - those who weren't drafted (Banks, Armstrong), or were drafted late (Austin) - have stepped in and excelled, even when their thought could be, as they return to their hotel rooms after another exhausting day: "Will I make the team?" Shanahan has repeatedly praised the 5-foot-7 Banks as a receiver in practice. Armstrong caught McNabb's only touchdown pass against Buffalo, a laser-like four-yarder he juggled into his arms in traffic.

"He didn't blink," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said.

In such a tightly monitored evaluation process, that counts. So does attitude.

"I know there's limited spots," said Austin, a seventh-round pick out of UCLA in the 2010 draft who wears a yellow rubber bracelet that says, simply, "Play Hard." "But I just try to be optimistic about everything, and I just love the game, so I'm not going to think about the other stuff. If I make a mistake, I suck it up. I don't go home like, 'Dang, man, I dropped the ball today. I wonder what Coach is thinking.' I never think like that. You can't afford to."

Austin said this Monday as he held Galloway's pads, which the rookie had to lug off the field. The group, which ranges in age from the literally gray-bearded Galloway to the 21-year-old Austin, tries to remain close. Receivers frequently leave the field together - or with new receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who played 16 years in the NFL as a receiver himself - discussing plays and routes.

But there is an inescapable reality in the situation, too, one encapsulated in Shanahan's "we look at everything" mantra, reflected by the video cameras stationed on cranes high above the practice fields, monitoring every move. These 10 receivers - 11, counting Furrey - might be teammates today, but at least four of those 10 will be out of a job before the preseason ends. How can they handle those opposing pulls, helping a guy who might take their job?

"Some guys, even if someone's trying to beat them out, they'll help them a ton," Kyle Shanahan said. "They can't help it. That's who they are. Some guys aren't going to give everybody their secrets. But if they put it out there, even if they don't give the secrets, they show their secrets by doing what they do, and a coach just says, 'Hey, watch this guy. This is how you can get it done.' "

From Mike Shanahan's standpoint, getting it done is all that matters. The next opportunity to prove that comes Tuesday morning, when McNabb and the other quarterbacks will again drop back to zip passes to their receivers. Each will drop a ball at his own peril, because someone's always watching, and every pass counts.

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