Redskins need more than Pierre Garcon at wide receiver

John Keim is taking a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster entering training camp. So far, he’s reviewed linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, running back, cornerbacks, safeties, tight ends and quarterbacks. Today, it’s the wide receivers:

Josh Morgan says his healed ankle will lead to more yards after the catch in 2013. (Sarah Conrad/Reuters) Josh Morgan says his healed ankle will lead to more yards after the catch in 2013. (Sarah Conrad/Reuters)

Returning starters: Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan

Key backups: Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson, Dez Briscoe

New additions: Donte Stallworth, Devery Henderson

The rest: Skye Dawson, Lance Lewis, Chip Reeves, Nick Williams

Decisions: How many receivers will the Redskins keep? In the past two seasons they kept eight and seven, respectively. One extra spot likely will go away as it was used for since-departed returner Brandon Banks. It’s hard to imagine the Shanahans only keeping five wideouts, especially with Robinson having a lot to prove and Garcon’s health a potential issue. Stallworth and Henderson could help in a pinch outside. Briscoe has the size to be intriguing, but also has inconsistent hands. The Redskins need someone not named Garcon to become more of a threat. He was the only receiver to surpass 81 yards in a game last season and only appeared in 11 games. Moss hit 80 yards once; no other receiver reached that number. The younger wideouts showed an occasional flash in the spring, but no one consistently stood out as someone to watch this summer.

Burning questions: 1) Is Pierre Garcon healthy? He’s been cleared to practice in full after offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, according to Mike Jones’ report Thursday. That’s a good sign for Garcon and the Redskins. But his toe could be the more nagging issue. Has he rested enough to help the torn ligaments on the second toe of his right foot recuperate? Or will it start to nag him again during the season? No one knows that answer just yet. It’s one thing if it nags him – it bothered him down the stretch last season, yet he caught 33 passes for 439 yards in the last six games, including the playoff loss to Seattle. It’s another if it has to sideline him again. With Garcon, the Redskins have a big and consistent downfield threat and, paired with a healthy Fred Davis at tight end, multiple weapons. Garcon’s physical style sets a tone for the receivers. He has quick feet, allowing him to get more burst after the catch, and it helped him get free against some press man coverage at times. Garcon averaged 7.4 yards after the catch, according to ESPN. Part of that can be attributed to the zone-read play-fakes and the chaos it causes at times in the linebackers, who try to scramble back into position only to be in a wrong spot. That enables players such as Garcon to benefit, if they have quick feet (it’s why most of his yards after catch occurred downfield and not off horizontal routes). He did have some drops but if healthy, he’s a good fit for what the Redskins want. The receivers are rather ordinary without Garcon.

2) How much does Santana Moss have left? As long as the Redskins keep using him as a slot receiver, he’ll be fine. He doesn’t need to be dynamic in this offense like other slot wideouts need to be for other teams. In the past, the knock on Moss was that he wore down too much over the course of a season. His offseason training in 2012 helped keep him stronger during the season, as did a lesser role. But Moss remains a crucial player for Washington. He’s a terrific route runner, giving Robert Griffin III someone he trusts, knowing he’ll be where he’s supposed to be and when. Griffin didn’t always throw with the same trust to other targets. Of Moss’s 41 catches, 26 resulted in first downs (and he caught 15 passes on third down).

3) Is this the year Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson become key players? The third year is a big one for receivers. Their first season was tough because of the lockout and inability to learn the offense until camp and then, for Hankerson, because of a season-ending injury. Hankerson is much further along than Robinson and it showed last year when he caught 38 passes during the regular season. Hankerson is better after the catch when he gets the ball in stride. Though his route-running was solid (especially when he plants and cuts out of his break, creating a little separation) his ability to make quick moves after the catch needs work. He doesn’t have much burst after he tries to set up defenders after the catch (like Garcon has). Hankerson worked well against zone coverage. Like all the wideouts he at times benefitted from a scheme that features deception and gets defenders out of position.  Ultimately, Hankerson does not scare a defense, but he can be an effective No. 3 target. His blocking improved, too. As for Robinson, he caught two long touchdown passes in consecutive weeks vs. Philadelphia and Dallas last season and followed those games with … zero catches the rest of the season. Robinson looked good this spring, but there’s a sizable gap from playing well in shorts and helmets and having a breakout season. He has talent, but absolutely must improve as a blocker and prove he can do more than hurt teams deep on occasion. The Redskins don’t need him to play an increased role for now, but they do need to see improvement.

What to watch for: Morgan’s explosiveness. Of the key receivers in 2012, Morgan had the worst yards-after-catch numbers. Part of that stemmed from the sort of catches he made: over the middle with defenders about to drill him. It’s tough to get a lot of yards after catch that way. But another factor was Morgan having seven screws in his ankle, limiting his ability to explode after the catch. He had the screws removed this offseason. He also had surgery to repair ligaments on both hands. His hands hurt him every time he blocked or caught a ball. So, in essence, they hurt him every play. Can the Redskins expect more yards after catch from Morgan if healthy? Probably. In his previous 59 catches with San Francisco before joining the Redskins, Morgan averaged 6.4 yards after the catch. If Morgan indeed is healthy, this will be a big year to prove what he can do. It would allow the Redskins to use him on a greater variety of routes than last season. Keep in mind, too, that some teams feel the way to slow the Redskins’ zone-read attack is by committing more defenders at the line and playing man on the outside. If that’s the case, the extra burst Morgan hopes to have will be necessary to break free at the line and create space for himself.

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Mark Maske · July 19, 2013

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