- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

They still will be a team open to dealing draft picks if the Flavor of the Month expresses displeasure with his contract and would fill a hole on the depth chart.

They still will be a team that might spend the same amount of money on a free agent even though the in-house option remains the better choice.

And they still will be a team that signs older players to fill reserve roles (the current 53-man roster has five players 35 or older).

But a big reason the Washington Redskins were able to survive the loss of six of their original starting 22 and reach the playoffs for the second time in three years is the procuring of nearly a dozen players under the age of 25 — only one of whom was a first-round draft choice.

Fifth pick overall LaRon Landry, 23, has delivered as expected, starting every game at safety and showing gifted skills while finishing with 95 tackles and myriad big hits.

The revelations have been players like offensive tackle Stephon Heyer, 23, deemed undraftable because of a bad knee, and defensive tackle/offensive lineman/blocking tight end/special teams player Lorenzo Alexander, 24.

“We’ve got some excellent young players on our team, which is good for the future,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “A lot of them got their chance because somebody got hurt. … There have been some young guys that got a chance, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”

In most cases, injuries equaled opportunity for the young players.

Heyer replaced right tackles Jon Jansen and Todd Wade and has experienced only a couple hiccups the last three games in pass protection.

Reed Doughty, 25, slid into Landry’s strong safety spot when Landry moved to free safety following Sean Taylor’s death.

Leigh Torrence, 25, started the season as the fifth cornerback but is now No. 3 following Carlos Rogers’ injury and John Eubanks’ release.

And H.B. Blades, 23, is part of a trio replacing weak-side linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

The defensive line has remained healthy, but tackles Anthony Montgomery, 23, and Kedric Golston, 24, have 47 and 11 tackles, respectively, and pass rushing end Chris Wilson, 25, is third on the team with four sacks.

“It goes on and on and on,” Gibbs said.

Unearthing gems on the second day of the draft, signing undrafted players and acquiring players who had failed to survive a final cut is vital for a team like the Redskins, whose philosophy is to de-emphasizing the draft (no matter what the company line is) in favor of trading picks for established players.

In the Redskins’ starting lineup at Seattle will be 13 players acquired through free agency, three via trade, one undrafted free agent and five drafted players.

Only two 2007 draft picks — Landry and Blades — made the final cut.

Since Gibbs returned to the team in 2004, the Redskins have averaged 4.2 draft picks a year, including a combined six in the opening three rounds, the time when immediate starters can be added.

The lack of chips on draft weekend makes the winter (when teams sign players with usually just preseason game experience), the draft’s second day (now rounds 3-7) and especially the days after the draft when college free agents can be signed more important.

None of the Day 2 picks from the 2004-05 drafts remain on the roster. But Day 2 of the 2006 draft was a coup for the Redskins — Montgomery in the fifth round and Doughty and Golston in the sixth round.

Montgomery has been a force against the run alongside Griffin, and Golston presents instant energy when he comes in as a substitute. Wilson played in the Canadian Football League last year and is used as a third-down pass rusher when Daniels moves inside to tackle.

Doughty started the final seven games and has 52 tackles. His play suggests he should get a shot to earn the full-time job next summer.

“Our two young safeties are continually coming on,” Gibbs said of Doughty and Landry.

Heyer has been a surprise considering how much he struggled at left tackle in the preseason while filling in for Chris Samuels. But his balance has improved throughout the season, and he’s able to use his mammoth frame (6-foot-6, 325) in pass protection.

“It’s a big adjustment from college football to the Sunday league, and when a guy makes the transition as well as Stephon has, it’s quite the accomplishment,” left guard Pete Kendall said.

Said Gibbs: “He’s stepped up, and I think he’s had exceptional performances starting in the Giants game. For a rookie, that’s a hard deal — come here and play offensive tackle.”

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