When the 6-foot-3, 313-pounder managed to corral the ball in a bear-hug grasp and went bounding across the field in celebration. His 89 other teammates erupted with cheers and laughter. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay made a running leap onto Jean Francois’s back. The three-week stay in Richmond had come to an end, and the trek back to Ashburn would soon follow.
Obviously, plenty of work remains for this team before it is regular-season ready. But those preparations will take place over the next three weeks from team headquarters and in two home preseason games the next two Fridays, and then one final exhibition matchup at Tampa Bay.
Here are five of the top takeaways from training camp:
1. Offense will be fine, but still lacks balance – From everything we’ve seen in practices and the snapshot of action in the preseason opener, Kirk Cousins will continue to grow in Year 2 as a starter. He feels as comfortable as ever both with his role and the offense. He has improved his deep-ball accuracy over the past three weeks, and remained sharp in the mid-range game. He’ll take advantage of the many weapons at his disposal, spreading the ball around to five, six or seven targets over the course of games, marching his team downfield. Greater confidence and recognition of defenses should lead to better results in the red zone.
Washington remains in need of balance on offense, however. The run game remains deficient. Matt Jones has the ability, but still must hone his feel for the pro game, and coaches must settle on the right complementary back – whether it’s Chris Thompson, seventh-round pick Keith Marshall, undrafted rookie Robert Kelley, 2015 practice squad member Mack Brown, or a veteran still not on the team.
In today’s NFL, the run game no longer carries as great a significance, however, a degree of balance and unpredictability remains necessary. General manager Scot McCloughan wants a smash-mouth attack to complement the efficient passing game. Last Saturday, as they got back to work following the preseason opener, Gruden & Co. ran 12 straight run plays during one segment of camp. Look for a continued emphasis on getting this phase of the game up to par.
2. Defensive linemen still must step up – Coaches remain happy with Chris Baker at left end, and they trust Kedric Golston to get the job done at nose tackle in their base packages. But others still must establish themselves as reliable contributors both in the base and the nickel packages. Washington can’t continue to get gashed by the run, and the unit desperately needs some interior pressure on quarterbacks.
Free agent signing Kendall Reyes will be in the mix, and could start at right end. Ziggy Hood, an eighth-year veteran, who signed a non-guaranteed deal back in January, has gone from long shot to potential piece to the puzzle at end or nose guard. Ricky Jean Francois will rotate in and out. The disappointment thus far has to be Stephen Paea, who lost his starting job one week into last season and missed the final five games with injury, and has yet to have an impact. He has lacked consistency, flashing one play, going silent the next three or four. He has the talent, and racked up six sacks his final year at Chicago, but hasn’t managed to find comfort within Washington’s system.
3. Expect outside help at OLB – Moving Trent Murphy back from end to outside linebacker gives the Redskins another body behind Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, but he’s not the impactful piece the puzzle that this unit needs. Kerrigan will get his nine to 10 sacks, and Smith appears to have made the leap that he needs to be able to improve upon the eight sacks he recorded as a rookie.
But the Redskins still need another edge rusher to help be the additional disruptive force that their defense lacked last season, and that Junior Galette would have provided had he not ruptured another Achilles’ tendon just days before training camp.
Houston Bates, Lynden Trail and Willie Jefferson will continue to get chances to prove themselves in the preseason. But McCloughan will likely pick up another player at this position once teams start making cuts to go from 90 to 75 players, or from 75 to 53. Good pass-rushers are hard to come by, but there’s bound to be a team with a wealth of talent and not enough roster spots. So, McCloughan and director of pro personnel Alex Santos and their staff will be looking for this year’s Will Blackmon, Mason Foster or Dustin Hopkins – a castoff from elsewhere who will earn a key role here.
4. Position battles remain – The veterans will play in the next two preseason games, and make way for the long shots in the final outing, so these matchups will be used to help determine the starters at left guard, one of the two inside linebacker positions and nickelback.
Shawn Lauvao emerged from last Thursday’s game – his first since Week 3 of 2015 – with his surgically repaired feet both feeling good. He expressed encouragement by his play, and said he’s just working on regaining a natural feel for working alongside left tackle Trent Williams and center Kory Lichtensteiger. Spencer Long, who replaced Lauvao after his injury last season, continues to get first-team repetitions at this position as well. Coaches are waiting for someone to distinguish himself.
The same goes for the ‘jack’ linebacker spot, where Mason Foster and Perry Riley Jr. are vying for the job next to Will Compton, and where rookie Su’a Cravens also will see time. All three have their strengths and unique traits, but it’s hard to say who holds the edge and best fits what Joe Barry wants.
Meanwhile, Dashaun Phillips appears to have a slight edge over rookie Kendall Fuller at nickelback. However, Fuller continues to receive opportunities to prove himself, and so the two could go back and forth over the next couple weeks.
One other offensive position battle that requires additional monitoring: tight end. Jordan Reed is No. 1, no question. But Niles Paul opened camp as the oft-used No. 2, ahead of Vernon Davis, and has since dropped to occasionally-used fullback/third tight end. Last week with Reed out, Davis started ahead of Paul. Throughout camp, Paul has played well, so it’s a curious development, and Paul has appeared frustrated. It remains to be seen if Davis has received additional opportunities as coaches try to see just how much he has in the tank, or if they see him as a better fit.
5. Patience with Doctson – Fans want to see first-round pick Josh Doctson on the field. Many can’t forget Malcolm Kelly, the injury-plagued 2008 bust at wide receiver. Each day that Doctson continues to experience soreness in his right Achilles’ tendon and isn’t able to run freely increases that angst.
Redskins officials remain confident that Doctson will heal completely if they handle this right, and so they are determined to avoid rushing the Texas Christian product back from injury. If Doctson opens the regular season on the PUP list, which looks like a likelihood, so be it. As long as Doctson regains full strength by Week 8 and develops into a contributor in the red zone and on offense down the stretch of the season, he should be well-primed for a prominent role in the offense in 2017, when the team will really need him with Pierre Garcon and/or DeSean Jackson possibly gone.