- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS The Washington Redskins are hardly being secretive about their wish list heading into this year's NFL Draft. They are in the market for (in no particular order) a speed receiver, a run-stopping defensive tackle and a reliable offensive guard.

But if this week's scouting combine at RCA Dome is an indication of things to come, the Redskins appear to be committed to improving a far less glamorous aspect of their roster: special teams.

Special teams coach Mike Stock has spent a considerable amount of time this week talking with some of the top kickers and punters in this year's class. And one them, Ohio State punter Andy Groom, has every reason to believe Washington is serious about shoring up its special teams in 2003.

"[Stock] said that the guy they had [Bryan Barker] is a 14-year vet, he didn't get it done for them and then he got hurt," Groom said. "They brought in Craig Jarrett from Michigan State and he didn't get the job done either. He said they're definitely looking to draft a punter this year."

Only a handful of kickers and punters are among the 250-plus players drafted in the NFL each year. And Redskins coach Steve Spurrier has never been one to place a significant premium on special teams.

But Washington's kicking game was among the league's worst last year. The Redskins ranked 31st in the NFL in net punting average (30.0 yards). They ranked 29th in field-goal accuracy (64 percent). And they played a revolving door game with their return men, using several players with little experience at those positions.

All of which prompted Spurrier to remark half-jokingly at the end of the season that a good punter would be worth a first- or second-round draft pick.

It's probably safe to say the Redskins won't use one of their first two picks on a kicker, but the prospects of spending a mid-to-late round pick on one isn't out of the question.

"As far as what the priorities of the club are going to be, it's hard to say," Stock said. "There are a number of things, obviously, that we have to address. We're going to be looking at the punting position, the kicking position and the return position."

Stock said he plans to talk with and work out nearly every one of the top special teamers on the board, a list that includes Groom and fellow punters Brooks Barnard of Maryland and Damon Duvall of Auburn and kickers Seth Marler of Tulane and Jonathan Ruffin of Cincinnati.

The Redskins went through three kickers in 2002: veteran Brett Conway, who tore a quadriceps muscle in Week 1 and was out the rest of the season; James Tuthill, who made eight of his first nine field-goal attempts but then missed five of his last six; and Jose Cortez, who was one of four from 40 yards and beyond in a late-season tryout.

Conway already has signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Cortez should be invited to training camp but likely will face competition from one or two others.

Barker, who turns 39 in June, is still under contract and probably will be given a chance to earn the job next season. But he suffered an open nasal fracture Thanksgiving Day in Dallas and missed the rest of the year, leaving his future status uncertain. Jarrett, who took over for Barker and averaged a paltry 38.6 yards per punt, is unlikely to be brought back.

With some notable special teams snafus from the postseason still fresh in everyone's minds, teams may place a higher premium on quality kickers, punters and holders in this year's draft than previous ones.

"I think this is one year where they really do think it's valuable, because the punting's been down in the National Football League," said Groom, who averaged 45 yards per punt last year at Ohio State and had just one attempt blocked. "I just got done talking to a bunch of teams that are very high on me and very high on special teams. They say to win the Super Bowl, you've got to have good special teams, and they're looking at it very hard this year."

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