Practice observations and analysis: 8/3

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Breaking down what I saw at Wednesday morning’s practice:

Coach Mike Shanahan seemed a bit more hands-on and vocal than usual. After WR Anthony Armstrong made a catch during position drills, Shanahan interrupted them to make a point about getting upfield sharply instead of drifting toward the sideline.

“He’s got to be hands on and keep you on your toes,” Armstrong said. “He just had something he wanted us to improve on right there, so he spoke on it. He does it every now and again. He keeps his hands on everything.”

Shanahan normally moves all over during position drills and watches different groups, but anything he says usually is quiet enough not to reach the sideline. After he watched the receivers on Wednesday, he got involved in the one-on-one drills between linemen.

When seventh-round rookie OLB Markus White beat first-string LT Trent Williams on consecutive snaps by ducking under him around the edge on a speed rush, Shanahan yelled: “Gotta protect the quarterback!” He made Williams get back in against White and was satisfied when Williams drove White into the ground. “That’s what I’m talking about!” Shanahan yelled.

“I was specific today because I saw a couple of things that I wanted to point out from last year,” Shanahan said later. “I might do that with a [defensive back] or tight end or running back. You’re looking at drills and you try to make a point when you see it.”

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QB John Beck was inconsistent again. That appears to be the norm, and at this point I should just tell you when that starts to wane.

First, the positives: He placed some throws out in front of receivers so they could run after the catch, including one in the flat to FB Darrel Young. It wasn’t a difficult throw, but he missed an easy one like that Tuesday. Beck put some nice touch on deep throws to WR Jabar Gaffney and WR Aldrick Robinson. And perhaps most notably, he drilled Gaffney over the middle on a bootleg left, throwing across his body. The throw was perfectly in stride, much better than the two he bounced on similar plays earlier in the week. Beck also hit TE Fred Davis in stride for a touchdown down the middle in situational drills.

Now, the negatives: Beck occasionally misfired badly. Either the ball came out of his hand wrong or there was indecision that resulted from miscommunication or some other breakdown. He threw two or three passes that weren’t even close to being a spiral. In fact, Beck’s spirals often aren’t tight. Coaches are attributing that to arm fatigue and aren’t overly concerned, and I’ll buy it for now. Recall that Beck wasn’t spinning the ball well back at players workouts in May, and it turned out he had gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before due to travel. Eventually, his spirals tightened. So let’s see if he can clean it up now that Rex Grossman is here to take some of his reps.

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Speaking of inconsistent, WR Niles Paul had the type of up-and-down practice you’d expect from a rookie. He sealed a defender to open a lane for the running back in 11-on-11 drills; blocking is one of his assets coming out of Nebraska’s option offense. He later caught a pass from Beck near the right sideline by breaking back to the ball to beat the defender. It’s the second time I’ve seen him adjust to a ball in the air and make a catch, the first being a deep sideline throw from Beck earlier this week.

Paul later dropped a pass over the middle when he let the ball get into his body. That caught receivers coach Keenan McCardell’s attention. I’m eager to see Paul return kicks in preseason games. For someone hoping to make the team near the bottom of the depth chart, his blocking ability helps the running game more than what Brandon Banks can provide, and obviously he’s a bigger receiving target. If Paul can demonstrate the type of playmaking ability in the return game that Banks did last season, he’ll have the advantage.

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If this was CB Kevin Barnes’ last practice with the first string, he made it a good one. (Newly-signed free agent Josh Wilson could replace him Thursday.) Barnes intercepted a late throw by QB Marc Verica to the sideline during 7-on-7 drills. He also drew praise from defensive backs coach Bob Slowik for jamming a receiver..

Barnes is in his third season after being drafted in the third round, and it’s fair to expect him to be more than a fourth cornerback at this point in his career. Despite some occasional flashes last season, including an interception in the Jacksonville game, he still hasn’t convinced coaches that he’s ready for an expanded role. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett measured his words carefully when discussing Barnes last week. Coaches want him to get more experience, considering he has played only 13 games over the last two seasons.

Barnes can tackle well enough; it’s a matter of recognizing offenses and reading breaks—things that come with experience. He’ll get his chance during the first four games of 2011 because third cornerback Phillip Buchanon is suspended, but then he could face the same predicament as last year when coaches deactivated him in favor of Byron Westbrook because of Westbrook’s prowess on special teams.

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Rookie WR Leonard Hankerson was open on a slant during team drills, but John Beck’s throw was beyond his reach because Hankerson slowed up as soon as he got free. Beck led him well but didn’t connect. Chalk it up to Hankerson’s lack of experience. Those mistakes can easily be cleaned up.

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Let’s make it a receivers hat trick: Malcolm Kelly worked as the third receiver during situational drills late in practice. Anthony Armstrong and Jabar Gaffney were the top two.

Kelly has run well so far, and he appears polished and confident compared to the rookie receivers. That said, this effectively is his first year in the offense because he missed all of last year. He attended meetings all last season, but this is his first extended opportunity to practice running plays. The fact he doesn’t play special teams is a disadvantage in his attempt to make the roster, so standing out in the passing game during the preseason is an absolute must.

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I pointed out rookie OL Maurice Hurt’s sluggish feet in this space yesterday, so I must report that he fared much better in one-on-one drills Wednesday. He slid his feet to keep LBs Eric McBride, Edgar Jones and Markus White at bay. They’re not exactly Brian Orakpo, but it’s a start. I still see Hurt ultimately getting his shot as a guard instead of a tackle.

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Continuing the early DE Jarvis Jenkins lovefest, he came off the ball low against OL Erik Cook during one-on-one drills and drove him back with ease. Mike Shanahan was watching and complimented Jenkins’ power. Jenkins later said he is focusing on being explosive with his hips. He played a bit today on the left side, and Jim Haslett is going to rotate him at both spots in games, as well.

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RB James Davis failed to pick up NT Thomas Weaver after Weaver beat his blocker on a play-action pass. Weaver came up the middle, so it’s hard to see how Davis failed to recognize the breakdown in front of him. Poor pass protection will get Davis cut; it’s what landed him on the bench late last year.

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ILB Perry Riley drew cheers from linebackers coach Lou Spanos after filling the proper gap and stopping a running play during team drills. Rocky McIntosh, who Riley is replacing, got caught in the wrong gaps too frequently last season. If Riley masters his responsibilities, it would be an upgrade. That’ll come with experience, but Riley is off to a good start.

…let me know your thoughts, and tell me if I’m missing something or someone you want to know about. Leave a comment here, send me an email at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com or hit me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell.

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