- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS — When the Washington Redskins report for training camp in late July, each of their five projected starting offensive linemen will be at least 30 years of age, and four will have at least 112 NFL starts.

“Is that great or what?” new coach Jim Zorn said. “Guys who will know what we’re doing.”

Added assistant head coach-offensive line Joe Bugel: “That’s a pretty darn good five, and I think they’ve got some years left in them.”

Indeed, having experienced linemen blocking for a still-developing quarterback and opening holes for a still-productive running back is ideal, and the transition to a new passing game will be minimal for the quintet of Chris Samuels, Pete Kendall, Casey Rabach, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen.

But there should be plenty of “but what ifs …” involved in any discussion about the Redskins’ offensive line as the organization continues to look at prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.

What if Jansen’s broken/dislocated ankle and Thomas’ torn triceps muscle — injuries that limited them to a combined four games — cause problems?

What if Kendall’s arthritic knees finally give out?

What if the durable Samuels and Rabach miss more than a game?

Suddenly, Zorn’s grin disappeared when asked about contingencies if the line isn’t as durable this year as it was in 2005 and 2006, when the starters missed a total of only three games.

“Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, we would love to have more guys there that could step in and take snaps if somebody goes down,” Zorn said.

Stage 1 of upgrading the offensive line begins Friday in free agency, although the Redskins aren’t in the market for a starter and the only likely move would be re-signing Jason Fabini, who started 13 games last season. Mike Pucillo (who has a back injury) and Rick DeMulling also are free agents. Reserve tackle Todd Wade remains under contract.

Stage 1A could involve making two-way player Lorenzo Alexander exclusively an offensive linemen, likely a guard.

Stage 2 is the more important part for the Redskins, who have only one “young” lineman on the roster — reserve tackle Stephon Heyer. This is the more likely scenario by which the Redskins will add depth.

This appears to be the right year to look for an offensive lineman.

“It’s the best group I’ve seen in 24 years collectively, and it was a good group before the juniors were added,” Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. “The majority of them can play the left side or both sides. It’s unusual to have that many guys that big and that athletic and that productive.”

Redskins director of player personnel Scott Campbell said six or seven tackles could receive first- or second-round grades.

“It’s an unusual year for offensive tackles — to have this many athletic tackles is rare,” Campbell said. “There’s also going to be opportunities for teams to get a good, athletic swing guy who can play guard or center.”

Since 1999, drafting offensive linemen hasn’t been a high priority for the Redskins — nine of their 53 picks have been used on fortifying the line and none in the first two rounds since Samuels in 2000.

Three of the O-line picks have panned out: Jansen (second round, 1999), Samuels (first round, 2000) and Derrick Dockery (third round, 2003) all became starters. Jansen and Samuels remain; Dockery signed a monster contract with Buffalo last year.

In the last four drafts, the Redskins have chosen Mark Wilson, Jim Molinaro and Kili Lefotu. They combined for one start before being released.

With the young players not developing, the Redskins have been forced to sign veteran free agents like Fabini and Wade and, going back to 2004, Ray Brown. In addition to the injury history of the current starting group, there could be salary cap issues next year, and one player — even if effective — may be cut to save money.

“There’s no question that’s an area we want to address and just building our youth there and several other places on the roster,” Campbell said. “With six picks, we have an opportunity to do that.”

In picking a lineman on Day 2 of the draft (now rounds 3-7) or signing one as a free agent, not much can be expected. Even top choices have a transitional process.

“Offensive linemen are probably the hardest to acclimate to the NFL only because they have to become one of five,” Colbert said. “They’ve got to come together as a unit, so to think an offensive lineman can come in and have an immediate impact is a little bit of a stretch.”

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