Seven observations about the Redskins' final roster

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WR Brandon Banks’ speed was too valuable for coach Mike Shanahan and a team with 11 wins in two seasons to do without. Banks is one of the rare explosive players who can win a game on one play. It’s important to understand, though, Shanahan is thinking about offense – not just special teams – when envisioning Banks’ speed as an asset. Teams have ways to mitigate a returner’s effectiveness, but the Redskins can use a player on offense any way Shanahan wants.

“You don’t have to punt to a returner,” Shanahan said. “With these [kickoffs] from the 35-yard line, they don’t get a whole lot of reps. So if a guy’s going to make your football team, he’s going to make your football team because he’s a playmaker.”

Shanahan hinted about various ways the Redskins could use Banks on offense. Picture a formation with Robert Griffin III and Banks in the backfield. That would present defenses with unique challenges in stopping all that speed, huh?

“We’ve got to find ways to get him the football,” Shanahan said.

Banks will be active on game days to return kicks, so let’s see how creative the Redskins can get with him on offense. Durability would be a concern if Banks is carrying the ball out of the backfield, but here’s thinking his speed is best used on the perimeter instead of between the tackles.

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I’m wondering whether WR Dezmon Briscoe will be active against New Orleans instead of Leonard Hankerson.

When Shanahan considers who can help him more against the Saints this Sunday, Briscoe will have a lot going for him. He has played in 18 NFL games with 41 receptions and seven touchdowns. Hankerson’s line: 4/13/0. Briscoe had six catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason, while Hankerson had only four catches for 32 yards. And Hankerson, at 23, is seven months older than Briscoe.

Hankerson went against some better competition early in the preseason, but Briscoe is more experienced. He stood out for quality route running, good hands and an ability to adjust to the ball, which is more than you can say for Hankerson at this point.

Shanahan’s reasoning for keeping Briscoe over Anthony Armstrong makes perfect sense. Armstrong was behind Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson on the list of ‘X’ receivers. He wouldn’t have been active on game day, Shanahan said. Briscoe, on the other hand, gives the Redskins’ size at 6-2, 210 pounds. He’s got a wide catching radius, and he flashed in the preseason. They have other players who can help cover kicks.

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There are a few compelling stories on the roster. OLB Chris Wilson was released by the Redskins and by Philadelphia last summer and spent the season out of football. He came back and beat out Shanahan draft pick Markus White.

And how about OT Jordan Black, who was planning to open a gym as part of his transition into retirement when the Redskins called him in July? While that isn’t a sign of great depth at tackle, Black deserves credit for quickly gaining 15 pounds when he came to camp and beating out one of Shanahan’s draft picks, Tom Compton.

“That’s what I think we’re all about when we put our football team together,” Shanahan said. “We try to tell our football players that we really don’t care what you’ve done in the past, because what you’ve done in the past is in the past. It’s what you’re doing now, what you’re doing for this football team.

“And there’s a lot of guys who have made Pro Bowls that all of a sudden, that next year, they’re gone. They don’t work the same in the offseason, they’re not committed, they might have different priorities. And in order to do something special with your football team, you’ve got to have everybody moving in the same direction. Our football team knows that and they understand it, and there’s lots to feel good about the guys that we’ve got.”

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Twenty-four of the 53 players on the final roster were not on it at the start of the 2011 regular season. That’s a 45-percent turnover rate. Shanahan has gotten to the point where he’s cutting past last-round draft picks – i.e. WR Terrence Austin, C Erik Cook, CB Brandyn Thompson, OLB Markus White – and moving on to new ones.

On the flip side, consider TE Logan Paulsen, an undrafted free agent in 2010. If a player demonstrates development (and of course depth at each position is a factor) he’ll stay. Shanahan’s loyalty to his draft picks runs only so deep before his patience runs out. Back-to-back last place finishes intensifies the pressure on everyone.

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The Redskins also continue to get younger. The average age of the 53 players on the roster is 26.49. That’s down from 26.62 last season and 28.02 in coach Jim Zorn’s final year in 2009. Washington is younger at quarterback, running back, receiver tight end, fullback and inside linebacker.

How Washington compares to the rest of the league is information the league usually releases in the days leading up to the opener. I’ll pass it along when I get it.

Younger doesn’t necessarily mean better, but a young nucleus of talent clearly is in place with players such as QB Robert Griffin III, WR Pierre Garcon, LT Trent Williams, OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. If the stable of running backs can get a foothold in the league and stay healthy, add them to that list. You can see Shanahan turning his vision to reality, and the Redskins eventually could have a sustainable product.

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Speaking of running backs’ health, Tim Hightower’s release was mildly surprising because coaches billed him as the most complete running back in the bunch. However, he could not stay on the field. His surgically-repaired left knee was sore after he played against Indianapolis, and the Redskins couldn’t save a roster spot for him.

Shanahan left open the possibility of Hightower returning to the team at some point, and knowing Hightower’s intense work ethic, I wouldn’t bet against him.

That Shanahan felt comfortable going with a pair of second-year backs in Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. and rookie Alfred Morris is a testament to his confidence in their pass protection.

“Alfred, you’re not really sure thus far because he hasn’t done it in game situations,” Shanahan said. “But with Helu and Royster, there’s a tremendous amount of [progress] as the season went on relative to pass protection and how to pick up blitzes. When they first came in, they were very raw, and at the end of the season, they had a lot of confidence in what they were doing. I expect them to play very well this year.”

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The Redskins last season utilized hang time and directional kickoffs to try to take advantage of the advanced kickoff position and pin teams inside the 20-yard line. The Redskins had the second-best kickoff coverage in the league last season, holding opponents to only 20.8 yards per return.

That approach appears to be changing now that K Billy Cundiff is on the team. Cundiff had five touchbacks on six kickoffs during the preseason finale.

“Anytime a guy can kick touchbacks, you let him kick touchbacks,” Shanahan said. “The 20-yard line to start isn’t great field position, so if you can get that done that would be a good goal.”

Graham Gano’s leg was very strong, and he would be among the first to say he wasn’t asked to boot the ball through the end zone. The decision to change kickers is going to follow Shanahan closely all season.

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