The Washington Redskins relied on several safety nets this offseason in deciding to let their most productive and most explosive wide receivers depart via free agency. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson had combined for 42 percent of quarterback Kirk Cousins’s single-season franchise record passing yards in 2016.
The Redskins knew they’d have the versatile and reliable Jamison Crowder back for 2017. They had high expectations for Josh Doctson, the first-round pick whose rookie season was essentially lost to Achilles injuries. They were closing on a one-year deal with Cleveland’s 6-4 Terrelle Pryor, who’d topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first full season as a wide receiver despite cycling through five quarterbacks. Best of all, they’d locked down their all-but-uncoverable tight end Jordan Reed with a five-year, $50 million contract extension just 10 months earlier.
But it took until Wednesday — just 18 days before the Sept. 10 regular-season opener — for Coach Jay Gruden and Cousins to have their full complement of receivers on hand. The return of the 6-2, 246-pound Reed, who missed training camp and both preseason games to date with a sprained big toe, was the final piece of the puzzle.
“He is a critical part of our offense,” Gruden said of Reed, who joined the team for its 90-minute practice at Redskins Park and stayed on the field with Cousins an extra 30 minutes to work on the timing and precision of his routes. “It’s a comfort level when he’s in there.”
Cousins was asked what made Reed so valuable to the offense: “Jordan has unique movement skills. And then because he’s often lined up in a way where he’s being covered by safeties and linebackers and nickel corners, he creates matchup issues. If you want to put your best corner on Jordan Reed, that’s one option. But then now you’re opening a door for whoever else is out there — a Josh Doctson, a Terrelle Pryor, a Vernon Davis, so on and so forth. So we’re always looking for those matchup advantages and they tend to be in Jordan’s favor, just because of how uniquely gifted he is.”
Reed, who is using custom orthotics and cleats as a precaution, said he felt fully healthy but acknowledged that getting back in sync with Cousins was a process.
“It’s never easy when you miss time,” said Reed, who accounted for 66 receptions and six touchdowns despite missing four games with a concussion and a separated shoulder.
Reed’s return comes not a moment too soon.
By any measure, the Redskins passing game that was so prolific in 2016 has proven difficult to jump-start. And the starters are expected to have only one remaining preseason game, Sunday against Cincinnati, to round into regular-season form. (Backups and long shots vying for a roster spot will handle the final preseason game in Tampa on Sept. 2.)
The first-team offense needed six series (roughly three quarters’ work) to engineer its lone touchdown drive of the preseason in Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Green Bay.
Because of injury, Crowder (hamstring), Doctson (hamstring) and Reed (toe) didn’t play in the preseason opener at Baltimore, where the starters were pulled after back-to-back three-and-outs.
In the loss to Green Bay, Crowder caught two passes, while Doctson and Pryor caught one each. Some of Cousins’s throws simply missed the mark. Cousins acknowledged afterward that he rushed a few throws, not yet acclimated to a live pass-rush. He also said injuries to the receiving corps had made it difficult to build the rapport needed by Week 1.
Asked Wednesday if he felt that those injuries had put the offense behind, Cousins answered carefully.
“I don’t know if I want to say I feel ‘behind;’ I think that would create a headline that I don’t want to put out there,” Cousins said. “But would I have liked for Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson to practice every single day from [offseason workouts] to now? Yes. Is it a little bit frustrating that we didn’t have that? Sure. But, fortunately, some of these guys have played a lot of football, and I’d like to think that any rust that would be there is going to be gone by Week 1. I’m optimistic. But I think we still need to get the rust off between now and then. I don’t think it’s fully off yet.”
In Pryor’s case, it’s not a question of rust but one of familiarity. Teammates only since March, he and Cousins are still getting to know one another. And both working overtime to fast-tracking the relationship.
During Wednesday’s practice, for example, Cousins and Pryor combined for a completion on a routine play they want to become automatic. Though it worked, it didn’t feel quite right to either. So Pryor approached Cousins immediately after practice to ask if they could polish it. Cousins was about to ask Pryor the same. So they stayed late to iron out the wrinkles, while Reed worked on his routes nearby.
“Just because things don’t work the first time doesn’t mean that come Week 1 we’re not going to be clicking,” Pryor said. “I believe we’ll be clicking … The effort is there and the want-to is there, so we just got to continue doing what we’re going. We’re going to be fine.”
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