Once again, Leonard Hankerson was among the last players off the practice field at Redskins Park. While teammates walked toward the locker room, the rookie wide receiver made a beeline toward the Jugs machine and waited his turn.
On Wednesday, he caught 60 balls after practice, each spit out of the machine like a leather rocket. The day before he caught 85 and on Monday 60.
“In practice, you’re only catching three to five balls a day. That's not enough balls,” Hankerson said. “So this helps.”
For young wide receivers eager to earn one of the few roster spots with the Redskins, every little bit helps. The receivers each report a new comfort level after playing one preseason game and hope for bigger things when Washington plays at Indianapolis on Friday night.
“That first game is out of the way now, so all the rookie jitters should be gone,” said Aldrick Robinson, the sixth-round pick from SMU. “You feel more comfortable going into this next week because you know the game speed, you know to prepare yourself more.”
Facing a tight battle at a crowded position, the young wideouts know it’s not just every game that counts — it’s every single pass thrown their way.
The Redskins drafted three wide receivers in April — Hankerson, Robinson and Niles Paul — and signed undrafted rookie Isaac Anderson. None is a lock for the 53-man roster, and each has to impress coaches in these next three preseason games. Even Hankerson, a third-round pick from the University of Miami, has no guarantees. In 2005, Coach Mike Shanahan cut his third-rounder, troubled running back Maurice Clarett, in Denver at the end of preseason.
The Redskins will likely keep five or six wide receivers. If they opt for the latter, that sixth receiver could double as a specialist responsible for returning punts and kickoffs. Brandon Banks, whose ailing knee has put his status in question, Terrence Austin and Robinson could be the front runners for that role.
If the team keeps Donte’ Stallworth, a ninth-year veteran who has impressed in practice, that would mean the young receivers are essentially battling for a single roster spot.
“You can’t worry about that,” said Paul, the fifth-round pick from Nebraska. “I was always taught, just make the most of the opportunity. So what little reps I get, I want them to be perfect, want them to be right.”
But with passes spread among nearly a dozen receivers in practice, each mistake is especially glaring — and there were several in the team’s first preseason game.
Seven receivers caught passes in the Redskins’ win over Pittsburgh last Friday. The rookies saw the bulk of their action in the second half. Hankerson was targeted three times, caught one ball for eight yards and dropped another. Paul had a 16-yard catch in the third quarter, and Robinson was targeted once — a short route in the fourth quarter — but failed to notch a reception. Robinson’s most notable contribution to the preseason opener was muffing two punt returns.
“It’s one of those, ‘Welcome to the NFL.’ This is how the game is,” said Keenan McCardell, the receivers coach. “The game speed is a lot faster than what you thought. You expected it was going to be fast, but it was even faster. I think they realize it now.”
Hankerson is 6 feet 2, with hands bigger than any other NFL rookie. He is filled with potential but has also been plagued by drops, both in practice and in the team’s lone preseason outing. Shanahan says he understands it, but he doesn’t excuse it.
“He had one thought in his mind: He was going to score,” Shanahan said of last Friday’s game. “He doesn’t even think about catching the ball because he does have excellent hands. Sometimes guys with excellent hands will lose their concentration, especially in games. That’s part of being a rookie.”
The young receivers expect to make a major leap from the first preseason game to the second. Without the benefit of offseason workouts and practices, the first week of training camp was a whirlwind and the focus was on learning plays as much as executing them.
“I think a lot of these rookies, they have some great days, they’ll have some poor days learning the system, kind of being a little bit confused,” Shanahan said. “It’s kind of natural, especially missing those 17 OTA days.”
With Banks sitting out Friday’s game with a knee injury — he was in Alabama on Wednesday seeing orthopedist James Andrews — Austin and Robinson will have an increased role on special teams, which could be the key to either being a regular season contributor.
Regardless of how the next three preseason games play out, coaches know they’ll likely be cutting at least one talented receiver and probably hoping to put another on the practice squad. It’s a dilemma they didn’t face a year ago and a problem they’re happy to have this preseason.
“Those guys, they’re not going to shy away,” Gaffney said of his younger counterparts. “They’ll come out and just keep getting better. We look for big things from all of them.”
Staff writer Shemar Woods contributed to this report.