“Besides Terry, [who] we know can play and has been out there, the rest of the group is really young,” wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said during a video conference call Thursday. “The rest of the guys are all in a competition. I have no idea who the next two guys are right now.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner expects to be creative with shifts, motions, formations and play-action, but whom he will rely on to execute them remains a question mark. Tight end is arguably an even bigger concern; the group has an undrafted rookie (Thaddeus Moss), an injury-prone veteran (Richard Rodgers) and a talented yet inexperienced former quarterback who remains on the reserve/covid-19 list (Logan Thomas) beyond returners Jeremy Sprinkle and Hale Hentges. Coach Ron Rivera did express confidence in the group earlier this week.
“I feel good about the tight ends,” he said. “I think obviously once we get Logan through the protocol we’ll be okay.”
But the lack of a proven pass catcher among the tight ends sharpens the focus on the wide receivers, a group that was affected by a number of developments over the past five months. Washington made a major offer to Amari Cooper in free agency, only for him to re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys, then lost Kelvin Harmon to a torn ACL, and then saw free agent pickup Cody Latimer go on the commissioner’s exempt list stemming from an arrest in May.
To compensate, McLaurin is likely to shoulder more of the load. That promises to be difficult. NFL Next Gen Stats tracks a stat called separation, which measures the distance between a receiver and the nearest defender at the time of the catch or incompletion, and McLaurin’s average of 2.1 yards of separation per target last season was tied for the third lowest among qualified receivers. This seems less a reflection of McLaurin’s talent and more of how much attention defenses showed him. So to take the next step, Washington wants McLaurin to expand his route tree and be able to go inside.
“That is the challenge,” Hostler said, adding, “It’s the pressure of being a number one guy.”
So Washington must develop a reliable second wide receiver, but Hostler didn’t sound confident when asked whom he expected to emerge.
“Crystal ball, I wish I could look into the future and tell you that I’ve got a definite — but I don’t,” he said. “There will be somebody that emerges, and hopefully that one person we’re sitting here talking about next year as, ‘Oh, he had a breakout season.’ ”
Before training-camp practices begin, there seem to be three leading candidates: last season’s late breakout, Steven Sims Jr.; newly signed veteran Dontrelle Inman; and under-the-radar third-year pro Trey Quinn. Sims flashed during the last four games of last season — 20 catches, 230 yards, four touchdowns — and he created 3.2 yards of separation per target, which ranked among the league’s top quarter. That said, Hostler pointed out that Sims and Quinn will probably remain slot receivers unless others develop because “it’s going to take two guys in there the whole year.”
Of the other eight wide receivers Washington has in camp, two have two or fewer career receptions (Cam Sims and Darvin Kidsy Jr.) and six have never taken an NFL snap: Antonio Gibson (who will also play running back), Antonio Gandy-Golden, Isaiah Wright, Johnathon Johnson, Jester Weah and Jordan Veasy. That puts Hostler in a tough position because “there is not a lot of tape on some of these guys, and I don’t know them.”
In practice, Hostler said the coaches will put young wide receivers in bigger situations to help determine whom they can trust moving forward. He praised the early work of Gibson, who seems “comfortable,” and Gandy-Golden, a fourth-round draft pick who Hostler said plays faster than his 40-yard dash time (4.6 seconds). Turner’s offense likes to throw the ball down the field, and bigger-body receivers, such as Gandy-Golden (6-foot-4 and 223 pounds), have had success.
“They are all talented players,” Hostler said of the young group, listing speed, length and scheme fit as strengths. “Hopefully, over the next couple weeks, we can narrow it down to how we are going to be doing this.”
For his part, Haskins could help the wide receivers by taking the next step in his development. Every coach seems to understand this season will include growing pains on offense, but the focus remains on laying the groundwork for future success.
“The longer and farther we go down the road, the better off we will be,” Hostler said of his wide receivers. “It is going to be a little bit of a challenge early.”
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