- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Washington Redskins were just two victories shy of the Super Bowl 16 months ago when injuries forced them to replace a 42-year-old with a lifelong center at right guard. That disastrous afternoon in Seattle is one offensive line coach Joe Bugel never wants to experience again.

To prevent a repeat, the Redskins have jettisoned the 2006 plan of grooming young blockers — Jim Molinaro, Ike Ndukwe, Jonta Woodard, Jon Alston and Kili Lefotu were all found wanting — and have accumulated plenty of linemen with NFL starting experience.

One of those, Todd Wade, is the odds-on favorite to replace departed left guard Derrick Dockery by virtue of his six years as a starter and the $3.5 million in guaranteed money he received to re-sign last week. However, the career left tackle is hardly a sure thing, because he has never played a snap at guard while Mike Pucillo, Taylor Whitley, Will Whitticker and Ross Tucker have all started there for other teams.

“This is the best quality depth we’ve had in the four years since I’ve been back,” Bugel said.

Bugel recently analyzed the five candidates at left guard:

• Wade has the edge thanks to his experience and his contract, the latter of which is a testament to the trust he earned from the coaches after signing with the Redskins on Sept. 5. Trouble is the 6-foot-8, 317-pounder has never played guard.

“Moving Todd to guard is not a panic situation,” Bugel said. “He took snaps at both guard positions on the scout team every other day in practice last season. At 6-8, he’s going to have work on getting leverage because he’s going to be playing guys shorter than him pretty much all the time, guys who weigh 325-plus. We’re going to give Todd every opportunity to be the left guard. If Todd feels uncomfortable, he’ll go back to tackle and we’ll go to Plan B.”

• With Bugel saying the Redskins won’t pursue any of the available starting guards, Plan B is Pucillo, who mostly played as an extra tight end in short-yardage and goal-line situations last year. While fellow late March 2006 bargain basement lineman Tyson Walter was cut in favor of Whitley on Oct. 23, Pucillo was quickly re-signed this month.

“Mike’s a master of a lot of different things,” Bugel said. “He can play center, both guards and tight end in our big package. Can he be a starter at guard? Probably. I have confidence in that guy.”

The 6-4, 311-pound Pucillo started 12 games at guard for Buffalo coach Gregg Williams — now Washington’s assistant head coach/defense — in 2003, a year after being a seventh-round draft pick. Pucillo lost his job to Tucker, of all people, the next year and wound up with Cleveland in 2005 and started four games at guard and two at center before signing with Washington.

• Whitley, drafted by Miami in the third round in 2003, spent his rookie year watching and learning before becoming a regular at guard in 2004. The 6-4, 305-pounder, whose step-grandfather, Dick Todd, led Washington in rushing and scoring in 1940 — was cut by the Dolphins in 2005. Whitley signed with Denver but played sparingly. Let go by the Broncos in 2006, he has yet to play a snap for the Redskins.

“I really like Taylor’s versatility,” Bugel said. “He can play center, guard and tackle.”

• Whitticker, benched after a coaching change as a Michigan State junior, surprised even himself by winning the right guard job as a seventh-rounder in Green Bay in 2005. However, another coaching change and a hamstring injury cost Whitticker not only the starting job but his roster spot, too. The 6-5 Whitticker, who’s currently closer to the 338 pounds he weighed as a Packer than the 325 he hopes to carry this year, was out of the league after being cut by Green Bay.

“I graded Will rather highly at Michigan State, and I liked him when we worked him out last season,” Bugel said. “We kept him on the list and when we had the chance to sign him in January, we gobbled that up. He’s very nimble for being so big, and he’s got a good anchor.”

• Tucker made the Redskins as an undrafted rookie out of Division I-AA Princeton in 2001. Tucker played briefly at both tackle and guard that year and was a starter the following August before being beaten out by David Loverne. Cut in October, Tucker signed with Dallas and started the final seven games before heading to Buffalo in 2004, to New England late in 2005 and then to Cleveland, where he went from starting center to the waiver wire last September. The 6-4, 310-pound Tucker opted to sign with Washington over Atlanta this month because of his familiarity with the organization and the chance to play for Bugel and coach Joe Gibbs.

“The guys that were with Ross in the past like [tackles] Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen love him,” Bugel said. “Gregg said he’s a legitimate tough guy. I said, ‘Go no further than that.’ ”

Now Bugel hopes that come August he’s faced with a tough choice at guard as opposed to the desperate decision he had to make in Seattle.

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