He planned to spend his first year evaluating the group of players he inherited from Jim Zorn’s 4-12 campaign, and the big step forward would occur after he put his stamp on the roster.
That’s the natural progression of any new coach, and the accountability simply comes with the job. Still, we heard from players and coaches last season how the Redskins didn’t have the proper pieces in place for their scheme, especially on defense. That one won’t hold as much water this season if the road gets bumpy.
A few other things stand out when dissecting the composition of the roster. Most notably, Shanahan’s desire to get younger is clear.
The Redskins had the oldest opening-day roster in the NFL in each of the past two seasons. Before Zorn’s ill-fated final 2009 campaign, the average age was 28.02 years. That’s down to 26.62, young enough to ensure the Redskins aren’t the oldest in the league.
It’s an auspicious sign that Washington is attempting to build a sustainable on-field product, both in the short term as it relates to injuries and long term.
Eight of the Redskins‘ 12 draft picks made it, which is a strong percentage. Nine might have if Jarvis Jenkins weren’t injured. If all 12 made it, you’d question the team’s depth. If only two or three made it, you’d question the quality of the selections.
The preference for youth is evident in several specific player decisions. Keeping rookie nose tackle Chris Neild over veteran Anthony Bryant was a bit unexpected, but it’s clear now that, for some reason, Bryant never provided what Redskins coaches wanted.
He anchored better than Ma’ake Kemoeatu at the point of attack last season, yet coaches kept starting Kemoeatu, who wasn’t fully healthy. Many elements are weighed as part of those decisions, though, including work ethic, study habits and other off-the-field factors.
Bryant appeared stronger and more explosive getting off the ball. Neild is a hard-working, high-motor player, and that’s essential for a 3-4 nose tackle. But he was pushed back by double teams and hasn’t proved to be much of a pass-rushing threat.
With only six defensive linemen on the roster, Neild will have a chance to validate the coaching staff’s decision to keep him. As the only backup nose tackle, he’s going to have to play right away.
Each of the seven receivers on the roster can make a convincing case to be there, but the Redskins will need to beef up the defensive line numbers at some point, and the receivers at the bottom of the depth chart are low-hanging fruit. (Consider Brandon Banks a return specialist because that’s what he is.)
Donte Stallworth still can separate from defenders on shorter routes and run past them on longer ones, but Anthony Armstrong can do that better. Stallworth is an eight-year veteran, so he could help mentor some of the young receivers, but that could be sacrificed if they have to add defensive line depth.
One veteran said during the preseason that fifth-round rookie Niles Paul had outplayed third-rounder Leonard Hankerson. Paul seemed like a practice squad candidate, but it’s not difficult to see why they kept him on the active roster. He does a lot on special teams and is a capable run blocker. His hands are better than Hankerson’s, which isn’t saying much. He’s definitely worth developing as a James Thrash type.