Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: offensive line.
Returning starters: LT Trent Williams, LG Kory Lichtensteiger, C Will Montgomery, RG Chris Chester, RT Tyler Polumbus
Top reserves: G/T Maurice Hurt, LG/C Josh LeRibeus, RG Adam Gettis and LT Tom Compton
Others: RT Jeremy Trueblood, RT Tony Pashos, G/T Jacolby Ashworth, C Kevin Matthews, T Xavier Nixon and G/C Tevita Stevens
Notable departures: None
New faces: Trueblood (free agent, Tampa Bay), Pashos (free agent, out of NFL), Ashworth (undrafted free agent, Houston), Matthews (free agent, Tennessee), Nixon (undrafted free agent, Florida) and Stevens (undrafted free agent, Utah)
Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept nine in 2012 and eight in 2011 and 2010.
What to like: The continuity up front is remarkable, considering the offensive line’s personnel weaknesses under former coach Jim Zorn and during Shanahan’s roster overhaul. Williams, Lichtensteiger, Montgomery and Chester begin their third season together on the first string. And Polumbus started three games at right tackle in 2011, so this group has been together for a significant amount of time. That’s particularly important because of timing, synchronization and reads required in the zone blocking scheme.
“When we came in and started looking at cut-ups [at the beginning of the offseason], the things we were talking about were so much further along than where we were even a year ago and two years ago,” offensive line coach Chris Foerster said in June. “We’re talking about refining and cleaning things up. Where we are with, say, zone-read offense, our protection schemes…we’re starting at Step No. 7 instead of starting back at Step 1.”
Foerster believes continuity doesn’t guarantee wins, but it will only help.
The line also is deeper than it has been since Shanahan arrived. That depth isn’t entirely proven—2012 draft picks Gettis and Compton did not play after the preseason—but they’re part of a group Shanahan drafted. Foerster, in turn, has done an exceptional job grooming his players.
LeRibeus, for example, blocked well, particularly in the run game, during the Redskins’ division-clinching win over Dallas last December after Lichtensteiger sprained his ankle. Inconsistency was problematic, but those were his first NFL snaps. Hurt, a seventh-round pick in 2011, made some important blocks in a spot start at right tackle in the Redskins 27-20 win at Philadelphia in Week 16. His cut block against a defensive end helped Josh Morgan’s catch-and-run for a touchdown.
The line isn’t perfect. That’s a product of how the Redskins have prioritized investing at other positions. But with a healthy unit last season, the offense led the NFL in yards per play. The scheme helps a lot, and Washington’s linemen are growing in it.
Preseason questions: The numbers game on the offensive line is a bit uncomfortable because of some players’ lack of proven versatility. Shanahan’s decision to keep a ninth offensive lineman last year protected the team’s rights to Gettis, a fifth-round pick, who plays only right guard. Compton, a sixth-round pick last year, will practice only at left tackle this summer. That bodes well for Hurt’s chances to be the backup right tackle if he’s recovered from the arthroscopic knee surgery he had in May.
The Redskins need to find an extra roster spot if they are to keep four tight ends, as expected. But that spot probably won’t come from the offensive line if they want to keep Gettis on the active roster. So why would they keep him?
“At times he can look as good as anybody we have,” Foerster said. Consistency is Gettis’ issue, which was understandable for a rookie. Foerster said Gettis significantly improved this offseason in understanding his responsibilities, which should allow him to play faster and dictate his blocks. He’ll earn his spot by playing balanced and maintaining good leverage.
Right tackle is the biggest question about the first string, but that’s relative. Redskins management this offseason sacrificed upgrading the position after the NFL proceeded with enforcing an $18 million salary cap penalty. Washington re-signed Polumbus, and inexpensive veteran free agents Trueblood and Pashos were signed to compete. But it’s Polumbus’ to lose.
Last season was Polumbus’ first as a starter since entering the NFL in 2008. He made a positive impact in the running game, but pass blocking was problematic. At 6-8, 305, he gets pushed back when his feet are slow and his shoulders aren’t square. However, this offseason was Polumbus’ first working exclusively at right tackle (he played left guard last offseason), and he believes the repetitions will help his technique.
Lichtensteiger expects to play sharper almost two years removed from right knee ACL and MCL surgery. He played through pain last season (remember, a knee scope in late July sidelined him for the entire preseason). His 12 penalties tied for fourth-most in the NFL, and his knee factored into that. Less pain in his knee would help his timing, strength and ability to get downfield in the screen game.
Hurt’s health (zing!) figures to be a major determining factor in which reserves make the team. Although he’s a natural guard, not a tackle, he proved last December he can play tackle. That versatility would give the Redskins a bit of wiggle room if they want to keep only eight linemen. If Hurt isn’t fully fit, it would increase Trueblood’s or Pashos’ chances of making the team. The Redskins would consider Compton for a swing tackle role if he plays well enough, but he’s only practicing at left. Conditioning and weight control are important issues for Hurt, and it’ll be interesting to see what type of shape he reports to camp in if recent knee rehab has prevented him from doing extensive cardio work.
Speaking of fitness, LeRibeus is another lineman coaches will be eager to weigh next week. He strained a left hamstring during spring practices after reporting in subpar condition. His weight was an issue in college during the season in which he was ineligible; he lost 70 pounds before his senior year.
The Redskins’ collective health along the line is, in my opinion, the most understated reason their offense was so good in 2012. Out of all five starters, only Polumbus missed one game. That’s it. Their injury fortune completely reversed from the disastrous 2011 season. That’s unlikely to occur again. If the Redskins’ injury luck regresses to the mean, we’ll find out how good their backups really are.