It wasn’t quite a breakthrough performance. Reed had 13 catches entering the game, after all, and had already displaced Fred Davis as Washington’s primary pass-catching tight end. He’d even caught a touchdown pass in a loss at Green Bay on Sept. 15. But when a young player performs on a national stage, attention quickly follows.
“Look at the moves from the tight end position,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said after Reed’s first catch of the Dallas game, an 11-yard reception on a third-and-7 play on the Redskins‘ first possession. “Ultimately, because of all the option stuff that the Redskins do, you’re going to get some man coverage. So they went out looking for a tight end [in the draft] that could win those battles. You saw some of the quickness there. This young man is going to make a difference on this team.”
Those were strong words for a player with three games of NFL experience entering the day. But Reed backed Collinsworth up. Two plays later he took a short pass and drove for 15 yards and another first down. Despite a missed block on the screen pass, Reed had the athletic ability to escape from Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne. On the first catch, he’d deked safety J.J. Wilcox. These aren’t slow men he was beating.
Reed was targeted by quarterback Robert Griffin III six times against the Cowboys and caught four of those passes for a new career-high of 58 yards. That came after a five-catch, 50-yard effort on Sept. 22 against Detroit. Reed missed Washington’s game against Oakland thanks to a severe thigh bruise and needed the bye week to recover. But he didn’t miss a beat upon his return to the field.
The key now? Making plays when opposing defenses have a better feel for what he can do. Make no mistake — the Chicago Bears, this week’s opponent on Sunday at FedEx Field, will have a much better idea of what Reed can do.
“[Reed] is a dynamic player, great after the catch, great hands, a guy that has a wide catch radius,” Griffin said. “The greatest thing he’s done is just accepted his role early in the year and he took his catches here and there, took his plays here and there, and now that he’s becoming more of a starter for us, he can be dynamic.”
Griffin spent time with Reed in the offseason as he recovered from his own major knee surgery and was one of several players who took part in passing drills at Redskins Park. A third-round pick out of Florida, the 6-foot-2, 243-pound Reed presented an imposing, if raw, target.
So far, Reed has 17 receptions in four games, an efficient ratio given that he’s been targeted just 21 times. He also has 164 receiving yards. Recovered now from the thigh injury, Reed is no longer even listed on the weekly injury report. He was on the field for a season-high 55 snaps against the Cowboys, which were 71 percent of Washington’s total plays from scrimmage. Davis, the other pass-catching tight end, was on for just 18. That trend is not new.
Griffin added that Reed can do much more than just catch the ball. There were always going to be concerns about his ability to block coming out of college, especially as a rookie. But Reed has been better than expected in that category even if there’s plenty of room for improvement. That alone will help keep teams off balance.
But for now, Reed’s strength remains his route running with an innate ability to set up defenders — as he did to Wilcox to great affect on that first drive on Sunday night — that is unusual in a young tight end.
“Most people will try to put a corner or maybe a big safety on a guy, and hopefully, with their athletic ability, cover a guy like that,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “But [Reed has] got a lot of confidence in himself and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him that not too many people can cover him one-on-one.”