Left without depth at familiar position

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No NFL team is truly prepared for losing a key player, especially a Pro Bowl left offensive tackle. You can spend years building line depth and teaching guys to play multiple positions, but you’re still going to feel it — right between the eyes — when your quarterback’s blindside bodyguard goes down.

That said, the Redskins sure do like to live dangerously, don’t they? When Chris Samuels got carted off with a sprained knee on the fourth day of training camp, an injury that could sideline him the rest of the preseason, their Plan B was more like a Plan Z. For lack of a better option, they turned the job over to an undrafted rookie, former Maryland Terrapin Stephon Heyer — and prayed Jason Campbell would still be ambulatory when Samuels returned.

This wouldn’t be so alarming if the Redskins hadn’t found themselves in a similar predicament not once but twice in recent years. Remember? Jon Jansen tears his left Achilles tendon in the 2004 preseason opener — and the club hastily signs Ray Brown, the world’s oldest offensive lineman, to replace him. A year later, Randy Thomas breaks his leg during the December playoff push — and again the only answer is Brown.

And yet, the Redskins don’t seem to have learned their lesson. They’re so preoccupied with upgrading their frontline talent that they’ve failed, at many positions, to assemble the quality depth a Serious Contender needs. As a result, almost every injury becomes a mini-crisis … if not a major one.

Maybe the Redskins will get lucky with Heyer, who was honorable mention All-ACC as a senior. Maybe he’s a sleeper, a late developer. During Joe Gibbs‘ first term, Bobby Beathard and his scouts were always finding lineman like that. Heck, two of the original Hogs — Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic — weren’t even drafted coming out of college. Another, George Starke, was claimed off waivers.

Later, the Redskins unearthed Raleigh McKenzie in the 11th round, Ed Simmons in the sixth and Mark Schlereth in the 10th. (They also signed Nate Newton after he got passed over in the ‘83 draft, but the offensive line was so loaded that season that he couldn’t make the team.)

Heyer doesn’t have nearly as much competition as Newton did. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be running with the first unit right now. He’s an affable kid and — outwardly, at least — not the least bit awed by his circumstances. Part of it, he says, is because “the offense I came from at Maryland is similar to this one. The Redskins are a big zone [blocking] team. They like to come off the ball — and run the ball. I’ve got to change my techniques a little bit, get my footwork the way Coach [Joe] Bugel wants it, but this offense is easier to grasp than another team’s might be.”

Then, too, it’s not like he has never had to block a smoke-snorting pass rusher. “I’ve seen Gaines Adams,” he says. “I’ve seen Darryl Tapp. Football is football, no matter where you’re playing it.”

Obviously, the Redskins are high on him, particularly after his solid performance in the Ravens scrimmage. He certainly has the size you look for at 6-foot-6, 325 pounds, and offensive boss Al Saunders is impressed with his athleticism. “He’s got long arms, and he’s got good feet,” Saunders says.

Heyer also has something else, something just as crucial to the success of a young player: a desire to prove 32 general managers wrong. Sitting around on Draft Weekend and getting rejected round after round after round can make a man angry. So can being told, as a parting shot: “You’re not even good enough to be Mr. Irrelevant.”

“It was a real heartbreaker,” he says. “But when I first talked to Coach Bugel, he said something interesting. He said he prefers free agent offensive linemen because they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They’ve got something to prove. And I do have a chip on my shoulder. The draft didn’t work out the way I wanted, and right now I’m trying to make the most of the situation.”

There’s a certain convenience to handing Heyer the left tackle job. For one thing, it enables Todd Wade, the most logical replacement for Samuels, to keep working at left guard. The season is just a month away, and Wade needs to get as comfortable as possible at his new position. Besides, Samuels is expected back by the end of camp; no sense in disrupting the line for the sake of a few exhibition games.

But there’s always the chance he could take longer to heal, and there’s always the chance Heyer could be lining up opposite sackmaster Jason Taylor in Week 1. It’s happened to Gibbs before. In 1987, right tackle Mark May hurt his knee late in the preseason, and Simmons, the rookie sixth-rounder, had to start the opener against the Eagles — and Reggie White. Less than six minutes into the first quarter, White broke through and slammed quarterback Jay Schroeder to the ground, spraining his right shoulder.

On the other hand, the Redskins did win the Super Bowl that year.

And come to think of it, the QB who took over for Schroeder, Doug Williams, didn’t do badly himself.

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