John Keim is taking a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster heading into training camp. He started with linebackers on Monday; today it’s defensive line:

Starters returning: NT Barry Cofield, DE Stephen Bowen, DE Jarvis Jenkins, DE
Adam Carriker

The Redskins need Barry Cofield to keep making these sorts of plays (Toni Sandys/Washington Post) The Redskins need Barry Cofield to keep making these sorts of plays (Toni Sandys/Washington Post)

Key backups: DE Kedric Golston, NT Chris Neild, NT Chris Baker

Key additions: DE Phillip Merling, DT Ron Brace

The rest: DT Domonique Hamilton, NT Chigbo Anunoby

Decisions: The Redskins have to decide how many nose tackles they want to keep. Can they afford to keep three? They like Neild – Coach Mike Shanahan referenced him several times late in the season when discussing key injured players — and they gave Baker a one-year tender for $1.32 million. Baker is more athletic than Neild and gets upfield quicker; Neild made plays with tenacity. It helps that Baker can play end if necessary. But it also hits on what Shanahan always talks about: competition. Neither backup can rest easy until the season begins and that’s a good thing. The Redskins also need to get a good look at Merling in case Carriker is a non-factor for a while. Merling was a 2008 second-round pick, but is now with his third team in three seasons. Brace, a 2009 second-round pick, was a backup with New England for the past four seasons.

Burning questions:  1) Will Carriker help this season? He told several outlets he’d likely open training camp on the physically unable to perform list after a setback in his recovery from a quad tendon tear, but has vowed to be ready by the start of the season. At this point it’s impossible to say whether he’ll be able to hit that goal. If healthy, Carriker would help. While they need Jarvis Jenkins to develop, Carriker has grown as a 3-4 end. His understanding of angles and anticipation of plays enabled him to become a legitimate threat rushing the passer. He’s excellent at occupying double teams and can collapse the pocket. Teams will double Cofield or Bowen, leaving Carriker often in one-on-one situations. But he has to be healthy.

2) Who will benefit most from Brian Orakpo’s return? Well, everyone. But end Stephen Bowen will be helped the most. Bowen’s sack total dropped from six two years ago to one in 2012, partly because of Orakpo’s absence. Bowen received more double teams and lacked someone to run stunts with the way he did with Orakpo. The two have excellent chemistry on stunts and can free one another up – both are adept at taking out a blocker to clear a path. Cofield draws a lot of double teams so it will be hard for offenses to double everyone. If Cofield continues to draw double teams and Orakpo is back, it makes sense that Bowen will strongly benefit.

3) Is Cofield still ascending? Yes. He started making plays last season based on knowing what the offense was doing, in a way he had not shown previously. If Cofield continues to grow in this area, his athleticism will enable him to become more of a playmaker. That does not mean a big upswing in sacks, but more plays behind the line of scrimmage or more disruption of plays that perhaps others finish. That can be expected. Cofield is a smart, studious player who has kept learning about nose tackle, how to read blocks and know what to expect. The more he knows, the better he’ll get. And that will only make this front stronger. But he still needs help from others to give him a break on third downs (Jenkins, Carriker).

What to watch for: Jenkins’s first step. Jenkins was a non-factor as a pass rusher in his first season. Though he improved against the run, he did not have the same upward trend in the pass game. But Jenkins worked all offseason on getting a more explosive first step, spending time working against the Pouncey brothers – Maurkice, Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowl center and Mike, Miami’s starting center — in Florida during the offseason. It was noticeable watching him last season and on film; Bowen would get somewhere in two steps that it took the stutter-stepping Jenkins three or four steps to match. Jenkins’s first step often was too short and it did not result in good penetration. He needs to take a bigger step and understand angles. It makes a huge difference. An end’s job on most plays is to play laterally, occupying two gaps to set up linebackers to make plays. But in the pass game, they need to get upfield. Jenkins’s smaller first step prevented that from happening. It’ll help, too, when he learns to anticipate plays, enabling that first step to be even quicker.  Jenkins is a smart kid and understands what he must do, and that’s a good start. It helps him to have a full offseason working on what he learned during his 15 starts. Even if Carriker returns, the Redskins need increased pressure from Jenkins. You want improvement from the secondary? It starts up front. The more pressure from four or five-man rushes will put the defensive backs in less vulnerable positions. This group did not generate enough of a push last season for various reasons; that can’t continue. They were solid against the run, but any improvement will stem from more pressure.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

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