The Redskins are here in Richmond going through conditioning Wednesday before their first practice on Thursday. My examination of their strengths and questions at each position concludes now with special teams.
Returning starters: Kicker Kai Forbath; punter Sav Rocca; long snapper Nick Sundberg; punt returner Richard Crawford; kickoff returner Niles Paul
Others: Kicker John Potter; kickoff returner Evan Royster
Notable departures: Coach Danny Smith (joined Pittsburgh coaching staff); inside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (free agent, Arizona); return specialist Brandon Banks (expired contract, not re-signed)
New faces: Coach Keith Burns (assistant special teams coach, Denver); Potter (free agent, waived by Buffalo, Nov. 6)
Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan has kept one kicker, one punter and one long snapper in each of his three seasons. He considered Banks a return specialist, not a receiver, in 2011.
What to like: Forbath’s field-goal accuracy last season established more certainty than the Redskins had at kicker last summer, when Graham Gano and Neil Rackers both lost the kicking competition to outsider Billy Cundiff, who then lost the job to Forbath. Forbath made 17 of 18 attempts, including all 12 from at least 40 yards.
Crawford seized the punt returner role by quickly getting upfield after catching the ball. Even if you discount his 64-yard return in overtime against Baltimore last December, he still averaged 13.1 yards on 11 returns. The job is his to lose.
Continuity in the place-kicking operation is always good. Sundberg and Rocca, the holder, have been together for two seasons now, and Forbath has practiced with them for almost 10 months. Sundberg has been reliably accurate for three seasons.
When Rocca punts his best, he is very good. He gets good hang time and adequate distance, and he’s adept at landing the ball inside the 20. Consistency is his focus.
Preseason questions: Kickoff returner is the greatest personnel uncertainty. Paul doesn’t have game-breaking speed. That asset isn’t essential for a return man, but it sure helps. Ball security is paramount, and Paul did fumble late in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore game last December. I’ll be interested to see if a straight-line speedster such as receiver Aldrick Robinson gets a chance in preseason games.
Forbath knows he could benefit from increasing the distance on his kickoffs. That’s a technique issue—not a strength deficiency—he said last year. He has had a whole offseason to hone it. The fact the Redskins signed Potter, a kickoff specialist, at the end of spring practices might indicate Forbath hasn’t progressed. More important than distance, however, are hang time and coverage.
Outside of the specialists, there are broad questions about new coordinator Burns. He has assigned to those on the kickoff coverage team different responsibilities than they had under Smith. As a result, the Redskins will have four “people coming in hot to the ball making the play,” instead of the two they had last season, Paul said in June. “It’s different rules,” Paul said. “You’re in different areas.”
The special teams also must account for Alexander’s departure. The Pro Bowl special teams captain commanded double teams on kickoff coverage and led the unit in tackles. The Redskins allowed Alexander, 30, to leave, partly because they believe in such special teamers as Paul, safeties Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes and linebacker Bryan Kehl.