- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

CARLISLE, Pa. The Washington Redskins' special teams enjoyed dramatic improvement last season over their latter years under coach Norv Turner, and fittingly the club made few changes this offseason.

Special teams coach Mike Stock stayed. So did kicker Brett Conway and punter Bryan Barker. Even long snapper Ethan Albright, a seemingly sure salary cap cut at one point, hung on. And the outstanding group of players in coverage, blocking and rushing remained largely intact.

The only major loss was that of Michael Bates, who returned kickoffs and performed several other roles. A five-time Pro Bowl pick as both a returner and a general special teams player, Bates was a cap cut this spring. Stock concedes that it's tough to replace Bates but believes that otherwise the group looks very promising.

"[Bates] had a different personality," Stock said yesterday. "He had his own reputation, which was solid. He put the pressure on not just special teams players to play well, but he was in the ears of a lot of offensive and defensive players, too. That was his personality, and I don't know if there's anybody else with that personality. But in each and every other one of these guys' ways, they're ready to step up."

The other significant departure was that of Eric Metcalf, who signed in late October and was the Redskins' top punt returner since Brian Mitchell in his prime. But Metcalf was aging, and the club likes the potential of wide receiver Jacquez Green and cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot. On kickoffs, receivers Justin Skaggs, Reidel Anthony and Darnerien McCants are getting looks, along with running backs Kenny Watson and Ladell Betts.

Linebacker Eddie Mason is being asked to take over Bates' leadership role. Mason, 30, has held a variety of special teams duties in recent years, surviving since the Turner era.

"Mike was a great leader," Mason said. "I really miss Mike because we really fed off each other. You rarely get that. But as we progress and we move forward, change comes, and now it's time for me to step up and be that vocal leader."

A key reason for last year's success was the sharp play of several first-year players, including fullback Bryan Johnson, tight end Zeron Flemister, wide receiver Derrius Thompson and safety Ifeanyi Ohalete. Stock believes another crop of young guys now is ready to step up.

"That's what this is all about," Stock said. "Free agency and then the draft and then the free agents out of college these are the guys you have to train."

The units' key question, according to Stock, is long snapper. The coach believes Albright is one of the NFL's best and lobbied this offseason for Washington not to cut him.

Albright is one of the few NFL players hurt by the new cap reduction for veterans. He received the increase in minimum base salary like every other player of his experience, but he did not get the lower cap figure because his signing bonus in 2001 was too big. And although a team might hang on to a linebacker at a slightly higher price, every penny counts when it's a long snapper.

For now, it appears the Redskins have carved out enough room in their projections for Albright's $700,000 cap figure, nearly $500,000 more than that of seventh-round draft pick Jeff Grau. But Stock said he'll "wait until there's a final decision" to breathe easy.

Gardener to choose

Free agent defensive tackle Daryl Gardener will decide this morning between offers from the Redskins and Denver Broncos. Agent Neil Schwartz said Gardener wanted to sleep on the two proposals and that the decision would come down to more than simply financial considerations. It appears Gardener is looking at a low first-year salary in either place.

Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey sat out his seventh day of camp and it appears all but certain that he will miss the Japan trip and exceed Heath Shuler's 13-day holdout in 1994. Agent Jimmy Sexton said of Japan, "there's always a chance." But there would need to be tremendous progress early today.

Vice president of football operations Joe Mendes said talks wouldn't be put on hold during the Japan trip.

Long day

The Redskins' offensive starters are looking at a fairly long day in Saturday's preseason opener in Osaka, Japan. Coach Steve Spurrier said they might have to stay on the field to play with all three quarterbacks: Sage Rosenfels (the starter), Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. The first-string offensive line seems likely to get the most work.

"If we feel each quarterback needs that first line for protection purposes, they may need to play with them one or two possessions," Spurrier said. "Defensively, I doubt if any of our first guys will play that much."

Ross Tucker, a 2001 undrafted rookie, has a chance to start at right guard. Coaches shuffled the line recently following an injury to left guard David Loverne, and yesterday right guard Kipp Vickers sat out with a swollen knee. Tucker took Vickers' spot in practice and should see plenty of snaps in Japan regardless because he has been working at center, guard and tackle.

Extra points

Vickers will be evaluated today in Northern Virginia. He is expected to make the trip to Japan and be able to play at least some. McCants was back on the field after hurting his wrist Saturday. Kicker Brett Conway, who has been ill, is increasing his activity and is expected to kick in the Japan game.

Four players so far have been ruled out of the Japan trip: defensive end Bruce Smith (knees), defensive tackle Santana Dotson (calf), Loverne (elbow) and offensive lineman Wayne Smith (hip).

Fans can watch the Japan game on the club level at FedEx Field. Admission and parking are free, but fans must register at the team's Web site, www.redskins.com, or by calling 301/276-6910.

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