- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2002

CARLISLE, Pa. Players, media and fans all seem to be saying the same thing about the Washington Redskins defense: It will be one of the 10 best, maybe even one of the five best, units in the NFL.
The talk starts with 2000's No.4 ranking and 2001's No.10 mark. The defense returns most of its starters from last year while adding celebrated coordinator Marvin Lewis and Pro Bowl linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Jessie Armstead. Its linebacking corps and cornerback tandem might be the NFL's best.
But is everyone overlooking the defensive line? One tackle spot currently is manned by Donovan Arp, a 24-year-old who hasn't seen an NFL snap, while one end position is waiting for the return of 39-year-old Bruce Smith from two arthroscopic knee surgeries.
Some Redskins veterans privately express concern about the line and whether it can be good enough to meet the defense's lofty expectations. But ultimately players think that by some means whether young players mature quickly, veterans find rejuvenation or a quality free agent is picked up the Redskins' defense will be as good as advertised.
"[The linemen are] young at certain positions, but when you're young, you're full of energy," Armstead said yesterday. "They've got some hot motors. You see the guys, they're all flying around. They've got to just keep doing what they're doing. And they've got three linebackers who can all run to the ball, so that's going to help them out tremendously."
Linebacker LaVar Arrington summed up his confidence like this:
"Hey, Donovan," Arrington called out as Arp walked past. "You going to show up this year?"
"Yup," Arp replied.
Arrington turned back to the reporter and said: "That's it. That's all I need to know. I trust them. They know what's on them. You're only given so many chances in the NFL, and I think they'll take the opportunities that are given and take full advantage of them."
Will it be that simple? There certainly are issues at this point.
To start, Smith's ability to return as a Hall of Fame sack artist is in doubt. Throughout the offseason some veterans privately acknowledged that Smith wasn't expected to be the same Smith anymore, and this week he bristled a bit when asked whether he would return with his traditional effectiveness.
"That's hard to answer," he said after a long pause. "I think in time I will, but it's just a tricky question to answer right now. I'm not even practicing yet. Ask me again when I start practicing."
For now, expectations of Smith seems to rely on some of the faith Arrington mentioned.
"We can't look at it and say, 'Well, Bruce Smith is 39 years old, coming back off the scopes on his knees, he might not play that well,'" safety Sam Shade said. "I can't look at that way. I'm looking at it like, 'Bruce is going to come back and be the same Bruce that he's been here the last two years.'"
The other issue is the club's failure to replace free agent tackle Kenard Lang. Last season Lang exceeded all expectations and stood out as a quick, agile interior player. He departed to the Cleveland Browns this spring and Washington passed over tackles in the draft and free agency until signing 32-year-old Santana Dotson to a minimum-salary deal in June.
Dotson has yet to participate in camp because of a nagging calf injury, and it's uncertain how effective he can be at this point in his career, especially because Lewis uses a shifting line scheme and Dotson has spent most of his career lining up solely over a guard.
And although there remains a good chance that Washington will sign talented tackle Daryl Gardener, his back and some aspects of his personality are considered risks.
For now, the club likes what it sees from Arp, a 2001 undrafted rookie who was plucked last October from the Tennessee Titans' practice squad.
"The film doesn't lie," veteran left end Renaldo Wynn said. "I know he's going against our offensive line, but hey, he's doing a heck of a job when he's in there. He knows what he's doing. Sometimes I have to think to myself, 'Man, you were a rookie last year?'"
Arp isn't the biggest tackle (6-foot-3, 293 pounds) but Lewis stresses that his scheme doesn't require two widebodies despite the conventional wisdom following his success with the Baltimore Ravens.
"[Success] starts with not letting them cut the defense in half," Lewis said. "If they cut us in half and knock us off our feet up front, we're going to have a lot of long days. We've got to do a good job of staying on our feet and keep the integrity of the defense up front."
Lewis, like several Redskins veterans, is eager to see Arp and other young players in Saturday's exhibition in Osaka, Japan. Also under scrutiny will be tackle Del Cowsette and ends Carl Powell, Otis Leverette and Ladairis Jackson.
If they turn in strong performances, all the top-10, top-five talk might be justified.
"People talk about a lot," Lewis said. "We've got to go play, develop a chemistry and hopefully develop a character, instead of characters."

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