With playoffs slipping from reach, Redskins must use final games to evaluate young talent

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:15 AM

Although it appears the Washington Redskins were all but eliminated from playoff contention with Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Coach Mike Shanahan's season-long evaluation of the roster will continue during the final five games.

Owner Daniel Snyder hired Shanahan, the team's top football official, to make the Redskins relevant again, and Shanahan will determine which players return next season. The Redskins hope to finish strong, but they also must look toward the future as another disappointing season winds down.

For the players, motivation should not be a problem.

"They check out [mentally], they won't be here," cornerback and defensive co-captain DeAngelo Hall said. "That's kinda where we're at."

The Redskins rank last in the NFL in total defense, giving up an average of 400.9 yards. They are 21st in offense (332.7 yards per game), 26th in rushing (a 90.7-yard average) and 10th in passing (242). They are last in third-down efficiency, converting only 27.5 percent of their attempts.

Washington currently holds seven picks in the 2011 draft. The Redskins have selections in the first, second and fifth rounds, and two each in the sixth and seventh rounds. They have no third- or fourth-round picks.

Of the 53 players on the 2010 opening-day roster, 30 were not on the team last season and Shanahan's roster makeover has only begun. The NFL's 2011 free agent class is considered the best ever, so many jobs could be on the line down the stretch.

"As I told our football team," Shanahan said the other day, "what we have to do is play much better."

Out of necessity, several first- and second-year players have been given opportunities to contribute, primarily on special teams, for the Redskins (5-6). A spate of recent injuries to key veterans and three losses in their past four games have delivered a significant blow to the Redskins' playoff chances, but opened doors for young players who could, eventually, help provide the foundation for consistent success during the Shanahan era.

Rookie left tackle Trent Williams has impressed coaches despite struggling at times while slowed by injuries. Of course, Williams, the fourth overall pick in the draft, was expected to make an immediate impact.

Dynamic return specialist Brandon Banks and running back Keiland Williams, undrafted free agents, also have stood out among the rookies. Linebacker Perry Riley, who had a costly penalty in the 17-13 loss to Minnesota, and wideout-returner Terrence Austin are other rookies who have received favorable grades from coaches.

Running back Ryan Torain has missed three consecutive games because of a lingering hamstring injury, but he heads the list of productive second-year players. Cornerback Kevin Barnes has been more involved on defense the past two weeks, and fullback Darrel Young, who signed with the Redskins as a linebacker after he went undrafted in 2009, has been a surprise on offense.

"Once they're on that field, all that young stuff go out the door. You gotta come out here and play," top wideout Santana Moss said. "And I feel like, right now, where we're at right now with whoever we put in there, they've been doing a pretty good job."

No one more so than Banks.

The diminutive player - he is generously listed at 5 feet 7, 150 pounds in Washington's media guide - is fifth in the league with a 27-yard average on kickoff returns and tied for eighth at 11.3 yards per punt return. "Every time he touches the ball, you feel like he has the chance to go the distance," Shanahan said.

Banks has a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He had two other long touchdown returns nullified by penalties, including one committed by Riley midway through the fourth quarter in Sunday's defeat that would have provided the go-ahead score.

For the second consecutive season, the Redskins had the league's oldest opening-day roster, the oldest starting lineup and largest number of starters who are 30 or older. Many poor drafts during Snyder's first 11 years as owner left the team without a steady infusion of youth and talent needed in a league where 30 is considered old.

As a result, the Redskins were built to win this season, but it appears Shanahan's first in Washington will end without a playoff berth. If that happens, the team will have missed the playoffs during nine of Snyder's 12 seasons in control.

Developing productive young players such as Banks, however, would be a plus. "The [young] guys are playing good for us," inside linebacker and defensive co-captain London Fletcher said. "These are the same guys that were down there in Tennessee [in Week 11] to help us win a ballgame.

"One of the good things about youth is ignorance, so to speak, in a good way, as far as you're oblivious to a lot of stuff. You just go into a ballgame with almost no fear. . . . You feel like you can defeat the world."

With nearly a dozen players sidelined by injuries, the Redskins shuffled their lineups in the 19-16 overtime victory against the Titans at LP Field. Barnes, who had been inactive the previous six weeks, played in the nickel role. Then with the Redskins short-handed at safety the next game, Barnes played cornerback and safety against the Vikings at FedEx Field.

Since training camp, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has expressed interest in finding opportunities for Barnes, who has played in nine games combined the past two seasons, mostly on special teams. Veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers could leave in free agency after the season, so the coaching staff should be eager to watch Barnes work under game pressure.

Austin is another intriguing player. On Saturday, the Redskins released 16-year veteran Joey Galloway and promoted Austin from the practice squad. It was obvious for weeks that Galloway, once among the NFL's top deep threats, was no longer a productive option.

Austin was active against the Vikings and on the field for some three- and four-receiver sets. Also an accomplished return specialist at UCLA, Austin is "going to help us as a wide receiver," Shanahan said. "Maybe inside slot receiver, maybe outside.

"He's got the mind-set to help us on special teams. He can be a punt returner, kickoff returner. He's also got the toughness to help us on cover teams and return teams. He brings a lot to the table."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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