Redskins training camp preview: Defensive line

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Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: defensive line.

(Previous position previews: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive line)

DEFENSIVE LINE

Returning starters: RDE Stephen Bowen, NT Barry Cofield, LDE Jarvis Jenkins

Top reserves: LDE Adam Carriker, RDE Kedric Golston, NT Chris Baker

Others: DE Phillip Merling, NT Chris Neild, NT Ron Brace, NT Dominique Hamilton, DL Chigbo Anunoby

Notable departures: DE Doug Worthington (waived, biceps injury)

New faces: Merling (free agent, released last Oct. by Green Bay) and Brace (free agent, released Dec. 29 by New England)

Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept six in 2012 and 2011, and he kept eight in 2010.

What to like: Jenkins in August will be two years removed from tearing the ACL in his right knee. Coaches expect him to produce at a much higher level this year because his knee should be even better and because he has a season of playing experience. He did not record a sack last year, a stat that stood out to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. “He needs to get four or five, six sacks,” Haslett said in June. That will depend on Jenkins’ leverage, quickness off the ball and not wasting any motion with his footwork when getting upfield to rush the passer.

Bowen and Cofield are well-established impact players who have validated the Redskins’ decision to sign them in 2011 and feature them in the 3-4. They have two seasons’ worth of knowledge and experience to apply. Cofield’s awareness improved last year as he learned how opposing teams tried to block him. Bowen’s is quick and agile. He plays the run and pass well, which is not easy in the Redskins’ read-and-react system. He’s also extremely tough, having played through an upper biceps tear last season.

Preseason questions: There’s considerable uncertainty about the reserves, particularly at defensive end, of which the Redskins have kept four in each of the last two seasons. This summer, the fourth spot is open, at least until Carriker returns. He expects to begin training camp on the active/physically unable-to-perform list because he still is not recovered from the torn right quadriceps tendon he suffered last September. Worthington replaced Carriker last season, but Worthington suffered a season-ending biceps injury in June. Suddenly, the Redskins are thin at the position.

The Redskins missed Carriker’s strength and agility rushing the passer. His absence thinned the line rotation in the nickel package, which forced others to play more. We should learn on Wednesday or Thursday an updated timetable for Carriker’s return.

Meanwhile, Merling by default is a leading contender for a roster spot. The 28-year-old at least fits the physical prototype of what Haslett seeks in an end: 6-5, 315 pounds. Miami drafted Merling 32nd overall in 2008, but his career quickly soured. Dolphins coaches criticized his practice habits, and then in May 2010 he tore his left Achilles’ tendon. He played in only three games for Green Bay last season before being released. Merling must show he can anchor at the line of scrimmage and help set the edge against the run. Pass rush ability would be a bonus.

Baker capitalized on Neild’s left knee ACL injury last summer by making the team and establishing himself as a powerful run stopper. Neild’s future with the Redskins might depend on whether he can beat out Baker. Neild had a promising rookie season in 2011. He isn’t quick, but he is strong enough to hold the point, and he fights to the whistle. An ACL injury can reduce a player’s power, as we saw with Jenkins early in 2012. Neild must re-prove his strength.

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