Niles Paul hasn’t even played half of an NFL season yet, but he already is hearing taunts from opposing defenders. “Is that all you do is block?” Paul, the Washington Redskins’ rookie receiver, recalled with a laugh this week. “I make sure I get them back for saying that.”
The thing is, the answer to that question up until last week was, basically, yes. The Redskins drafted him in the fifth round out of Nebraska last April after they noticed his blocking skills. In Nebraska’s option offense, Paul was a blocker first — and second. Catching passes came third.
But now that Santana Moss is out three to seven weeks with a broken left hand, Paul’s role will increase beginning in Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills. He is one of several unproven backups that must help the Redskins prevent a three-game losing streak in light of a recent barrage of injuries.
“All these guys on our team, they get their chance to show people what they can do, and some guys really take advantage of it,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “That’s what you look for, guys taking advantage of an opportunity.”
Center Erik Cook, receiver Terrence Austin and tight end Logan Paulsen are second-year players you will get to know over the next month or so. Ready or not, injuries to starters have thrust them into prominent roles.
Cook was partly responsible for a critical sack on fourth-and-2 in his first start last week against Carolina. When the Panthers’ nose tackle faked rushing the passer and instead dropped in coverage, Cook didn’t recover in time to block the linebacker that actually blitzed up the middle.
Other than that, he held up OK in protection along with new starting left tackle Sean Locklear and new left guard Will Montgomery.
“I felt protected pretty well,” quarterback John Beck said. “I felt like I could move around in the pocket, get to my second and third reads. For only having a week of practice [prior to the Carolina game], this unit, I feel like it’s big difference now that we’ve stepped in this week.”
Washington’s injury woes might affect its passing attack most. Moss and tight end Chris Cooley, who’s out for the season with a left knee injury, are two of the team’s most talented playmakers. They’re established veterans who might have helped ease the burden on an inexperienced starting quarterback such as Beck.
Paulsen will take over for Cooley. Like Paul, he’s known mostly for his blocking. But he caught two passes for 48 yards against the Panthers.
“A big thing that helped me develop as a pass receiver was obviously talking to Chris, talking to Fred [Davis],” Paulsen said. “Especially with Chris, just seeing the coverages and kind of knowing people’s leverages, knowing who to run the route off of has been really crucial in terms of helping me develop that.”
It will be interesting, however, to see how defenses adjust to Paulsen’s expanded role. Both of his receptions last Sunday came on play-action passes when linebackers bit on the run fake. Once Paulsen establishes his ability to catch the ball, expect defenses to play him more honestly.
Paul’s outlook is similar. The fifth-round draft pick caught his first two NFL receptions last week. One was an acrobatic 11-yard catch near the left sideline that converted third-and-10 on the Redskins’ second touchdown drive.
Paul separated from his defender with a sharp out cut at the top of his break. Such precision has been a major focus for him since training camp.
“Being a bigger, physical receiver, I never had to run crisp routes,” Paul said. “I could always just manhandle the little corners in college. Now I have to be crisp in and out of my routes, getting out of my breaks and not [giving anything away].
“Obviously being in the NFL, you’ve got a lot of good corners. They’ll dig out your route pretty much if you don’t sell it.”
That type of growth is exactly what Shanahan wants to see executed on the field over the next several weeks. And the unforgiving truth is that the Redskins’ season depends on it.
“They’re looking forward to their opportunity,” Shanahan said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do. We brought them in for a reason, and you’re just hoping to go out there and the game’s not too big for them.”