Individually, none of the signings produced more than a ripple of attention, as a franchise known for lavish spending on free agents filtered through the bottom tier of available players over the past six months. But the Washington Redskins believe that, collectively, the depth of players they assembled this offseason will provide a significant upgrade at a spot that carries great importance -- special teams.
The bulk of Washington's acquisitions were made primarily with special teams in mind, and the Redskins have stockpiled linebackers and defensive backs, whose fearlessness, speed and athleticism make them the lifeblood of any competent kick and punt coverage and return squads. The names -- Pierson Prioleau, Warrick Holdman, Tony Dixon, Omar Stoutmire, Artrell Hawkins -- are unfamiliar even to many hardcore NFL fans, but team officials project these players to make a substantial impact on special teams.
Special teams has long been a concern for the Redskins and although Coach Joe Gibbs and his staff stressed its importance last year, the Redskins (6-10 last season) remained inconsistent in everything from field goal acumen to refraining from penalties to creating lengthy kick and punt returns.
The coaches realize that must change and between the players acquired and those drafted -- four of Washington's six picks could play extensively on special teams -- their expectation is that it will.
"We certainly think we've got some candidates there that should be very good on special teams," Gibbs said, "so we think we've helped [special teams coach] Danny [Smith], and Danny thinks we have, too, so we'll kind of see how it goes. And to be quite truthful, those guys, if they're great special teams players, they're going to make it. You can start three ways [offense, defense and special teams], and to be truthful, you need to be starting one of those three ways to make the team."
While overcoming crushing injuries became the hallmark of Washington's third-ranked defense last season, the constant influx of new defensive starters robbed Smith of his best special teams talent. The Redskins lost top linebackers and defensive backs on a weekly basis, and as unknowns such as Antonio Pierce, Lemar Marshall and Ryan Clark became regulars on defense, Smith kept searching for new personnel to plug his holes, while feeding Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, rugged players eager for more playing time.
"Special teams is a man's game," Smith said. "Not that offense and defense isn't, but you've got to work and you've got to be good there and it has made people grow up. Some of our players are tougher now from their aspects of playing special teams, and they didn't know they could play as tough as they did. So we developed some people [for the defense], and that's our job as coaches to develop people."
As the defense flourished, chemistry and continuity sagged on special teams. The Redskins lost two prominent specialists -- kicker John Hall and return man Chad Morton (since released) -- for much of the season because of injuries, while punter Tom Tupa dealt with his wife's cancer diagnosis (she has since recovered), and undisciplined play kept the unit from meeting Smith's expectations. His peers, however, praised his work.
"I thought Danny did a remarkable job last year," Williams, said, "with so many injuries on the defensive side of the ball and how they impacted him. He did an unbelievable job of just getting guys ready to go week in and week out, and we're deeper now than we were at this time last year."
For that, Smith is thankful. He and assistant Kirk Olivadotti pointed out which free agents had made their lives difficult while on opposing special teams units, and the Redskins went out and signed them. Dixon, a safety, knew immediately why he was wanted. "The first thing Coach Danny came in here and told me was, 'I know what you can do on special teams, and I expect you to do even better here,' " Dixon said.
Smith hopes to build a wide range of special teams performers, so that, when injuries occur again, there will still be familiarity among the units. That might curb the crippling penalty problem from cropping up again, and perhaps bolster the NFC's second-worst ranked kickoff coverage team. Speedster Antonio Brown, added late last season, will be the primary return specialist, and the coaches believe he could be a game-changer in that role.
"We've got competition now, and that's the difference in our football team," Smith said. "When you release guys from your team that don't get picked up, then you're not very good. And we had a lot of that [last year] and now we're going to be releasing people [during the preseason] that are going to go on to play on other teams, which tells you that our level of competition has increased and that's what is going to make us a better team.
"People say, 'How good is your special teams? How good is this guy or that guy?' That all remains to be seen, and we have a lot to learn and a lot of work ahead of us, but the thing we have from the start is competition, and that's a great foundation for special teams. We're headed in the right direction."