A year ago, the mention of their names at meetings would start arguments between the Redskin coaching and scouting staffs.
Could Mat Mendenhall really play? Why can't Melvin Hones pass-block? How could Farley Bell ever become a linebacker? Why keep free agents Kevin Turner and Chris Godfrey and cut veterans, especially with Dallas coming up?
Mendenhall, Jones, Turner, Godfrey and 11 other draft picks and significant free agents -- the rookie Class of '80 -- were key factors in the downfall of Coach Jack Pardee in a power struggle with General Manager Bobby Beathard.
Pardee considered the Class of '80 to be substandard, except for No. 1 pick Art Monk. And even Monk wasn't considered by the coaching staff as quite the prize that Beathard said he was. Only one draft choice (Monk) and four free agents even made the active roster during 1980.
Beathard remained convinced his selections were, for the most part, valid. After a disappointing 6-10 season, Pardee told owner Jack Kent Cooke it was ludicrous to look for substantial future help from the Class of '80. Beathard disagreed.
"Just be patient," he told Cooke.
The owner sided with Beathard, fired Pardee and told his general manager to show him he made the correct decision.
"I'm positive more than ever it was a good draft," Beathard said today. "You can't judge things in a year, or even two years. Injuries, slow development and a lot of other factors can affect progress. But it's starting to look better all the time."
Certainly, the Class of '80 is beginning to have more impact on the Redskins, even though Mendenhall, the No. 2 selection who ultimately may determine its final success, continues to struggle with physical problems.
Of the 10 players still remaing from that group, as many as eight could survive the final cut this season. yand as many as five could wind up as starters.
Monk already is an established talent who should become a legitimate star in Coach Joe Gibbs' high-powered offense. Jeff Bostic, a free agent who once was considered solely a kick snapper, currently is the starting center. Jerry Scanlan, a free agent who was a starting tackle in camp before a leg injury, eventually might become a regular guard. Fullback Rickey Claitt, a free agent who shocked even himself by making the club last year, still figures in the backfield picture.
Pat Orgrin, a free agent who spent last season on the injured-reserve list with a bad knee, is a defensive tackle candidate. Zion McKinney, a free agent who made the 1980 roster, is trying to retain his wide receiver spot despite leg problems. Farley Bell, the No. 6 choice who walked out last summer, is improving daily in his bid for a reserve linebacker position. Lewis Walker, the No. 10 choice, has been moved to wide receiver from running back after being sidelined for a year with an injured knee.
And Jones, who was almost cut last year before Beathard intervened, has developed into one of the emerging stars of this team, a role some people hoped Mendenhall would fill. The Pardee staff thought Jones unable to pass-black well enough to every play in the NFL. Now Gibbs and Line Coach Joe Bugel wonder just how good he eventually might become.
"Melvin is a real load; a horse," said Bugel, who has made the former Houston star, a seventh-round pick, his special project. "He is incredibly strong and very, very determined. In games, he's amazing. There is something about putting on the silks that gets him going. He just runs over people.
"How good is he? He's something now. And wait until he gets everything down. There may not be anyone who can stop him."
Jones is 6 feet 2 and 279 pounds, with huge thighs and a quiet demeanor that belies his onfield intensity. He responds to constant, patient instruction. He got little of that last summer once it became evident that he had never been properly introduced to pass-blocking.
"I worked and I worked at trying to get better last year," said Jones, who spent the season on injured reserve at Beathard's urging. "But I knew at the end of the season I was no better than at the beginning. That was the frustrating part.
"ythen when they made the coaching change, Joe (Bugel) came to my home in Houston and talked to me. He started to work with me then. By the time we had the first minicamp in April, I already felt I had learned more than though all of last year. Everything suddenly made sense."
It helped that Bugel's blocking approach puts emphasis on power and aggressiveness, which happen to be Jones' strengths. Bugel was so impressed by his protege's early progress that the Redskins were able to trade Jeff Williams, their best lineman in 1980, and gives his starting right-guard spot to Jones, who has never suited up for an NFL game.
Jones' rapid improvement has helped ease the concern over Mendenhall, who has been sidelined since early in camp with a damaged knee. He is now awaiting an arthroscopic examination that should reveal why the injury has no healed as fast as the doctors had hoped.
Beathard, who was criticized indirectly in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated for his drafting while personnel director with the Miami Dolphins, is highly sensitive regarding Mendenhall, who was projected by most scouting combines as a fourth-round pick after a senior season ruined by a ruptured appendix.
Beathard saw in the 6-6, 253-pound youngster the kind of quickness and strength usually possessed by first-round athletes. At one point, he was tempted to take Mendenhall in the first round before deciding on Monk, after he became convinced Mendenhall would be available in the second round.
Any chance Mendenhall had of making the team last season were destroyed by the after-effects of his illness. He came to camp with weak legs that prevented him from rushing the passer effectively. He showed some promise, but needed time, so he, too, wound up on injured reserve.
After the coaching change, Mendenhall was penciled in as a starter at Coy Bacon's right defensive end. It was hoped he could play the early downs, then be replaced in passing situations.
"He was coming along real good, too," said Defensive Coordinator Rickie Petitbon. "He was stronger and he was able to penetrate on running plays. I was happy with his progress. It's too bad he had to hurt his knee."
Now, no one is sure how long Mendenhall will be sidelined. Gibbs still hopes to have him back before the end oc camp, and it's possible he could wind up starting before the season is over -- if the knee finally heals.
"It's very frustrating," Mendenhall said the other day. "I had those physical problems last year and then to have the knee injury this year, well, I just want to get back and play. I'm pushing myself as hard as I can."
Beathard says it is unfair to evaluate Mendenhall until he has been given a full chance, free of injuries.
"I'm not defensive about him. I just know he can be a good player in this league," Beathard said. "He's never been completely healthy here yet. He was improved at the minicampts, that was pretty obvious. He is very inexperienced. Remember, he lost a lot by being sick his senior year, even though he played. If just wasn't the same for him, so he has a lot of time to make up. We aren't going to rush him. That would be a mistake."
And what of the other players in the Class of '80?
The fourth choice was traded to Tampa Bay for cornerback Jeris White, who has been one of the standouts of this training camp. Lawrence McCullough, the ninth pick, couldn't make the transition from quarterback to receiver. After being cut by the Redskins, he flunked a Canadian Football League test. No. 11 Mike Matocha, a defensive end, wasn't as quick as the Redskins had thought. He, too, couldn't make it in the CFL. No. 12 Marcene Emmett, a cornerback, was cut last season and waived on a rule technicality this year, when he was claimed by Tampa Bay.
And the two free agents, Godfrey and Turner, cut by Pardee over Beathard's strenuous objections are still in the NFL. Godfrey (a defensive tackle) is with the Giants and Turner (a linebacker) with the Jets.)
"I wish we had both of them," Beathard said. "They've shown they are NFL players. But I think with this staff we won't be letting any more promosing youngsters go if we can find room for them. And that's encouraging." p