Niles Paul is just happy to return to the football field. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

This time last year, Niles Paul sat on his couch, surgically repaired ankle propped up high, and his spirits low. He watched his teammates open the season, knowing that he wouldn’t join them the entire year after a gruesome preseason injury that robbed him of what had seemed like a potential breakout campaign.

So, when the 2016 offseason, training camp and preseason came, the Washington Redskins tight end embraced each with zeal, just happy and thankful for a return to the football field. The appreciation has only reached another level on the eve of Washington’s regular season opener against Pittsburgh at FedEx Field on Monday night.

“I’m just excited and blessed to be here,” Paul said after reflecting on his missed fifth season and return.

The Redskins held their vote for captains last week, and they picked Paul as the leader of the special teams units. (Washington has five captains total. Two on offense (Kirk Cousins, Trent Williams), two on defense (Will Compton, DeAngelo Hall), and one on special teams).

“It was unexpected,” Paul said. “I didn’t know it was going to happen. I obviously didn’t vote for myself. I had voted for someone else. But coach Gruden told me I was one of the captains. I was excited, but it’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it. I’ve been doing my job and everything I can and busting my tail. But I feel like being a captain just puts it in a whole new light, new responsibility.”

In his first four seasons, the 2011 fifth-round pick out of Nebraska ranked among the most reliable special teams contributors. The Redskins missed Paul’s presence on the field last year and hope that his return both as a player, and as a leader, can help bring some much-needed stability on special teams. Nothing has changed regarding Paul’s approach on the field. But he now finds himself giving young teammates more direction in hopes of helping them collectively fortify the coverage and return units.

“I think I’m just starting to realize that I’m six years in and an old guy,” he said. “That’s crazy. In my mind, I still feel like I’m a young pup and in my prime: 27. But now we’ve got a lot of young guys, asking me for advice. Old guy.”

Two of the young players following Paul’s lead are backup outside linebacker Houston Bates and safety Deshazor Everett, who showed promise late last season, and again this preseason. Everett used a strong final push in the last two preseason finales to lock up his spot on the roster in 2015 and again this year. He recorded 16 tackles while playing primarily on special teams as a rookie. He embraces the same role this season while also seeking growth.

“I know special teams is my ticket to getting onto the field,” Everett said. “I’m a guy that’s going to find the ball. I may not be the fastest, or the greatest cover guy. But I can find the ball. That’s what I’m going to do for my team.”

Meanwhile, Bates opened last season on the practice squad before getting called up to the 53-man roster with 10 games left in the season and played almost exclusively on special teams, recording 10 tackles. This training camp, Bates continued to evolve, earning a role as a pass-rusher behind Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, while also landing jobs on multiple special teams units.

Entering his first full NFL season, the second-year pro out of Louisiana Tech aims to define himself as one of the top special teams standouts, while also remaining ready to chip in on defense.

“I’m just going to keep the same mentality I had last year: once I got on, no turning back. I know what’s expected of me and I’m going to take full advantage of it,” Bates said. “I tried my best to get into that new role, and you just can’t get to high or too low. I like it a lot. Special teams, and defense when they need me. I know when my number is called, I’ll be ready to do what they need.”