- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

Their ranks perceptibly altered by the first few weeks of free agency, the Washington Redskins got back to work yesterday as the offseason workout program opened, signaling the official start of preparations for the 2005 season.

The majority of the 69 Redskins under contract (excluding NFL Europe players) participated, but the absence of departed “core Redskins” like linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot was felt.

Pierce and Smoot scored sizeable contracts from the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. Their exits, along with that of No. 1 wide receiver Laveranues Coles, led many observers to proclaim Washington’s offseason the worst to date of any NFL club.

Without supporting that notion — yet with somewhat heavy hearts — Redskins players began the long process of trying to build on last year’s 6-10 record.

“I’d be telling you a bald-faced lie if I said losing Antonio and losing Fred Smoot is not going to make a big difference in our team,” safety Ryan Clark said. “But I’m not saying we’re going to go down, because we have guys that can step up and play those positions.”

One of those players is Lemar Marshall, who appears to be the front-runner to start at Pierce’s vacated middle linebacker position. A one-time college defensive back and last year’s weakside starter, Marshall is looking to bulk up his 225-pound frame so it can withstand the rigor of a 16-game season at middle linebacker.

However, Marshall noted that this defensive system uses its outside linebackers and defensive linemen to absorb blockers, making heft less of an issue in the middle. Thus, Marshall will spend the coming months adding a few more pounds without compromising his quickness.

“I really don’t worry too much about [my weight],” Marshall said. “Really you worry about building your strength up and just being prepared. But you do want to gain weight a little bit just to make it through the 16-game season.”

Losing Pierce and Smoot, two cogs in last season’s third-ranked defense, will be the backdrop of everything Washington does this offseason. The defense was the club’s one reliable element in 2004, and it is unclear whether assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams and his staff can maintain that excellence.

On offense, the calculus is a bit different. Although Coles was a Pro Bowl pick in 2003, he wanted out badly and has been battling a toe injury for nearly two seasons. The Redskins obtained speedy wideout Santana Moss in a straight-up trade for Coles with the New York Jets, shortly after signing former New England Patriots receiver David Patten.

Clark pointed to Patten, who was among those working out yesterday, as he argued that the club compensated for its losses by obtaining the right kind of new players.

“It was good to see a guy who still wants to come to work,” Clark said of 30-year-old Patten. “I think we’re bringing in guys who fit in. You can’t always bring in the big-name guy or the guy who wants the most money, because he doesn’t fit in with your group.”

Also supporting the theory that Washington will endure was safety Matt Bowen, who cited the defense’s ability last year to overcome injuries. Even though LaVar Arrington, Mike Barrow, Phillip Daniels and Bowen himself missed all or major parts of the season, the defense thrived.

“Gregg always says, ‘There’s no stars on our defense.’ I think guys really believe that,” Bowen said. “I’m not saying I would put my sister in there. … But when we had guys go down last year, we had guys step up and play really well — play really well as a team.”

The workout program, which is voluntary and for which players receive nominal pay, runs through mid-May. Gibbs hasn’t released the remainder of the offseason schedule, but the first minicamp is expected to take place April 29-May 1, t he weekend after the draft.

Notes — The Redskins re-signed linebacker Chris Clemons (who had been tendered as an exclusive-rights player) and wide receiver Gari Scott. Linebacker Maurice Jones was released.

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