The Oakland Raiders were in their nickel defense late in the third quarter of last Sunday’s game at O.Co Coliseum. Two cornerbacks were set to cover Hankerson split far to the right and teammate Santana Moss in the slot.
Hankerson had seen this package before in meetings and film study during the week. He knew exactly how to fool Raiders corner Phillip Adams. Moments later, after a 17-yard catch from Hankerson on a delayed slant pattern, the Redskins had first down at the 12.
In a game Washington absolutely had to have, Hankerson made his contribution. That key catch was one of his four receptions on the day and set up the go-ahead score on a touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon. The Redskins were down 14-10 at the time.
It is all part of the maturation process for a third-year player who could provide a huge boost with a breakout season. Hankerson has begun to take small strides toward that with more playing time at the “Z” receiver position.
Josh Morgan began the year as the starter at that spot. Hankerson has started the last three weeks and will likely do so again when Washington returns to action after the bye week with a Sunday night game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“It was all good, made a couple catches, got a couple yards or whatever,” Hankerson said before trailing off. He wasn’t all that impressed with his day against Oakland. There’s too much work left to do.
Through four games, Hankerson has 15 catches for 185 yards. He caught two touchdown passes in the season opener on Sept. 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He is on pace for 60 receptions and 740 yards, which would set career highs in both categories.
A measure of the trust quarterback Robert Griffin III is developing with Hankerson? Last year he had just 57 balls thrown his way all season. This year he’s on pace to see 88.
It doesn’t hurt that Hankerson appears better equipped to take advantage of those extra passes. According to wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel, Hankerson has tried since minicamp in May to develop a more aggressive approach to balls thrown his way. The hope was that would help cut down on the number of drops that had plagued Hankerson earlier in his career.
“As a result he’s been much more consistent with regard to catching balls that are in his frame,” McDaniel said. “That, in combination with how much he owns the offense, knows when he’s supposed to separate and when the quarterback is looking to him, makes him a very reliable, consistent target to get open.”
That first down against Oakland is a prime example. The Redskins faced a 3rd-and-4 at the 29 as they drove for the go-ahead score. Hankerson was beckoned into motion by Griffin and stopped just outside of Moss in the slot. At the snap, he let Moss engage with corner Tracy Porter and shaded to the outside for three or four steps.
That convinced Adams that Hankerson would head towards the sideline. Instead, with a quick turn of his hips, Hankerson used Moss as a screen and cut towards the inside. Neither Porter nor Adams reacted and Hankerson was wide open in the middle of the field.
“[Hankerson] is a natural runner. He has route running instincts that you can’t coach,” McDaniel said. “Because he can feel defenders when they’re in vulnerable positions. He knows when to accelerate, or give the mirage that he’s accelerating, and knows how to get his long body in and out of cuts.”
Hankerson finally had a full offseason to prepare, of course. He worked out with Moss, a fellow south Florida native. The year before Hankerson was recovering from hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that kept him to four games as a rookie.
And there wasn’t much he could do before that first season, either, with NFL players locked out from March 11, 2011, before he was even drafted, through the start of training camp on July 29.
Still, Hankerson has yet to prove he’s a big-play threat. Only twice in his career has he caught a pass for more than 30 yards. He doesn’t have the speed to burn opposing corners or the power to consistently run after the catch the way Garcon can. But, for now, the Redskins aren’t expecting that. They just need another threat to help move the chains. Hankerson is getting there.
“When [Hankerson] gets the opportunity to set guys up one-on-one, he usually wins,” Washington coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s one of the guys that has size, has strength and is becoming more comfortable not only with the system, but with himself.”