- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Three of the projected four starters are new. The primary pass rusher just celebrated his 40th birthday. Major offseason acquisitions include a seven-year veteran coming off knee surgery, a journeyman nose tackle and a fourth-year backup who is now being asked to fill the biggest shoes of all.

To say the Washington Redskins have reason to be concerned about their new-look defensive line is putting it mildly.

“It’s always a concern, especially when you lose two tackles inside,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards, referring to Daryl Gardener and Dan Wilkinson. “But that’s behind us now. We’ve got to look forward.”

With Wilkinson’s saga finally resolved — the veteran was released Tuesday when he wouldn’t agree to a restructured contract — the Redskins began the process yesterday of molding a group of mostly unheralded defensive linemen into one cohesive unit.

You won’t find anyone around Redskin Park complaining about a projected starting line of Regan Upshaw, Brandon Noble, Jermaine Haley and Renaldo Wynn. What you will find is a coaching staff content to start the season with those four men in the trenches, even if most fans know little about any of them.

“We’re pleased with the guys we have,” Edwards said. “They’re sort of journeymen working their butts off. Our job is to get them lined up and get the most out of them.”

Washington’s starting defensive line at the end of last season consisted of Wynn, Gardener, Wilkinson and Bruce Smith, a veteran group that had a large impact on the league’s fifth-ranked defense. Seven months later, only Wynn remains in his original role.

Gardener, the team’s reigning MVP, signed with Denver as a free agent (and since seriously injured his wrist in a fight outside an IHOP restaurant). Wilkinson was cut Tuesday and is now seeking employment elsewhere. And Smith, though back at age 40 for his 19th NFL season, will be used primarily as a pass rusher as he seeks the three sacks he needs to break Reggie White’s NFL career mark.

All four of those players had established track records. Coaches and fans alike knew what they could expect from them.

The new group? Aside from Wynn, a solid if not spectacular end during his six pro seasons, the rest of Washington’s linemen are still building their NFL resumes.

At 6-foot-2, 307 pounds, Noble is a near-prototypical nose tackle, which is to say his efforts often go unnoticed. He made 41 starts in four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys (following brief stints in San Francisco and NFL Europe), spending most of his time keeping opposing centers and guards occupied while his teammates went after the quarterback or running back.

Haley, 30, resembles Noble in stature (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and reputation (he’s known more as a run stuffer than a pass rusher). He has less NFL experience, though, making nine starts in three seasons with the Miami Dolphins. As Wilkinson’s replacement at tackle, Haley will find far more responsibility on his shoulders.

“Me and Noble have been kind of in the shadows, and we never really got a chance to show what we can do,” he said. “Now it’s an opportunity for us to really step up and demand [that opposing teams] double-team ourselves.”

Noble and Haley are quiet, lunch pail types, but Upshaw makes sure you know when he’s around. One of the more active, talkative players on the field, he is the most explosive of the Redskins’ new linemen.

In seven seasons split between Tampa Bay and Oakland, Upshaw has recorded 331/2 sacks, but he has been injury prone of late. He tore his ACL during training camp last year, missing the Raiders’ first 11 games, and needed arthroscopic surgery this summer to finish cleaning up the knee.

Wynn, 28, returns as the other starting end after notching 42 tackles and forcing three fumbles a year ago. His previous experience on the interior line has led to speculation that he could help fill the void left by Wilkinson’s departure, and Edwards seems agreeable to such an experiment.

“We’ll definitely explore that opportunity,” he said.

The Redskins do plan to scour the NFL waiver wire as training camps around the league progress, perhaps finding a veteran tackle at a reasonable price. For now, though, the club seems willing to proceed with its current arrangement, hoping this reconfigured unit solidifies more and more with each day of practice.

“You know what? That’s what camp is for,” Upshaw said. “It doesn’t take long. You notice that one guy likes to make a certain move at a certain time, and then the other guy learns to cover for him. That’s the progression you get from working with each other every day. The guys we have, I can go to war with them. They can all play.”

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